“I’ve seen this, but only one time before,” my friend Grant said, as we were discussing the mayhem around Michael Jackson’s passing. “This is the beginning of an empire. He just became Elvis.” Grant’s a 20-year music vet, and has seen it all. A few days later, those words just kept floating around my head. “He just became Elvis.”
Originally, I didn’t feel the need to write about Jackson’s life, death or music. Honestly, I’m not particularly familiar with his catalogue. Thriller came out a few months before I was born. The only reason I owned a vinyl copy is because an ex-girlfriend bought it for me. (Note: If you love music, and your date defends T-Pain’s auto-tuned warble as “singing,” it’s not going to work. I also should have known the relationship would fail when she complained about me playing Death Cab’s Transatlanticism in the car.)
But what’s happening now is, without a doubt, history in the making. A week ago, Jackson’s albums held nine of the top 10 slots on the Billboard charts. The week after he died, he had nine of the top 10 songs on iTunes, all top 10 albums and all top 10 music videos. His Number Ones album sold 108,000 copies, bumping the Black Eyed Peas off for the biggest-selling week for a single album this year.
As tragic as his death was, there’s no doubt that the people around Jackson will continue to reap untold fortunes off of his artistic legacy. The sales also point to Jackson being worth far more dead than alive, as the autopsy reported that he was only 112 pounds at the time of his death. He was clearly incapable of performing in his summer comeback concerts.
Already, the profiteering has started. In Jackson’s hometown of Gary, Ind., a company is already giving “Michael Jackson Tours,” which cover four locations in the family’s history: his “childhood home” (abandoned), the grocery store where his family shopped (a regular grocery store), Jackson’s high school (which you could also find by typing “Gary High School” into Google Maps) and the steel mill where his dad worked.
For this, the tour company is charging more than $50 … to ride around a blue-collar town for an hour, and look at a grocery store. While completely ridiculous, it’s a great example of how nearly anything with the name “Michael Jackson” on it generate revenue right now.
And it’s not just the music that will continue to sell for the coming decades, but everything surrounding the King of Pop. His “intellectual property”—lawyer-speak for his image, catchphrases, white gloves and other things uniquely Michael that can be turned into merchandise—has already become an entire sub-industry within entertainment.
A great example of the how big this can be is the estate of Elvis Presley. When he died in 1977, Elvis was worth only $4.9 million. In 2003, the licensing from his intellectual property (keep in mind, this is from stuff that isn’t his music) brought in more than $45 million.
With the Jackson fortune, there’s also the question of what will happen to The Beatles catalogue. Michael bought 50 percent of the rights to The Beatles catalogue as an investment in the 1980s. This, in itself, is worth a large fortune.
Finally, there are rumors that Michael held more than 100 “secret songs” back from his label, either as a legacy for his children, or to support them in the event of his passing. If this is true, we’ll see a Johnny Cash/Biggie/Tupac-like marketing blitz, where “new” material is released every year around the Christmas shopping season for years to come.
While the impact of Michael Jackson’s legacy will be endlessly discussed and debated, both in the media and by passionate music fans, there’s a bigger truth here.
From the age of five, Michael essentially existed for show business. He made his dad a lot of money. He made his handlers a lot of money. He was the world’s biggest entertainer, and then the world’s biggest punch line. He never had a childhood. He was probably almost never happy. At his funeral, a lot of famous people paid tribute, but there were no close friends to speak about loving someone with no agenda. His life was a product the world consumed until it grew tired of the taste.
And that’s how Michael Jackson became Elvis. By dying broken, scared and alone, he has created untold fortunes for those who never loved him.