The Business of Michael Jackson: Why the King of Pop Is Wealthier in Death
By Kenya N. Byrd
If anyone knows the music biz inside out it’s attorney and author James L. Walker. In 1989, Walker launched his career working with the late Phyllis Hyman and has worked closely with the Jacksons in the past when his client was signed to their family label, Modern Records. Recently, Katherine Jackson appeared in court to address the handlings of her son’s estate as well as the financial allowance to care for MJ’s surviving three children and herself. Walker breaks down Michael Jackson’s potential value for ESSENCE.com – and why he’s far from broke and even wealthier in death.
ESSENCE.COM: Since Michael’s death there have been many reports that he was not in a healthy financial standing. Is that true?
WALKER: What disturbs me most is that since his death and over the years there is the misnomer that Michael Jackson was broke and was losing everything. This is so untrue and shows the complete inaccuracy of reporting and the misunderstanding of how the music industry works. When Michael Jackson was alive and heading into his 50-date tour, his value on paper was approximately $800 million to 1 billion dollars, based on my understanding of the 750,000 songs he owned or co-owned in his partnership with Sony/ATV Music and his MIJAC Publishing and related companies.
ESSENCE.COM: What did MJ’s publishing deal entail?
WALKER: Let’s break down publishing in its simplest analogy. First, a song has two halves – writer and publisher. The writer owns 50 percent of the song, a publisher takes half of that, which means that once a label is involved they are truly only receiving 25 percent. So I don’t believe that Michael’s label owns 50 percent of any of the songs he’s written, but a quarter.
ESSENCE.COM: In terms of musical wealth, how do you think the King of Pop has fared?
WALKER: Let’s use his best-selling album of all time, “Thriller,” which sold 59 million copies, as an example. My calculations are based on today’s economy. Under copyright law a writer receives a “statutory rate” of 9.1 cents for the use of their song and $1.75 for every minute the song goes over four minutes. Because labels want to pay the least amount of royalties, they urge artists to keep the song length under five minutes. Therefore, if the album were released today, Michael and his cowriters would receive more than 86 cents in mechanical songwriting royalties alone from each album sale, which means just from the album MJ made $51 million. Should this include singles, the “Thriller” track by itself would have made the publisher and writers nearly $ million.
ESSENCE.COM: Whoa! But what about everything else, such as licensing and all those things?
WALKER: Besides the fact that he profits from jukebox income, synchronization royalties (music used in videos or film, commercials, etc), sampling fees (using hook or snippets of a song on average use of about 20 seconds depending on the artist, he could get an upward of six figures); ring tones, and performance rights.
ESSENCE.COM: We can hear the register now. But MJ also owned an extensive catalog, and his 50 percent ownership of the Beatles’ catalog is reportedly worth half a billion dollars. Is that true?
WALKER: Exactly. Michael did it smart. He was one of the first Black artists to think about owning his publishing as well as buying publishing from rock n’ roll to Motown music collections. He owns Sony/ATV catalog featuring songs by the Beatles, Elvis, Babyface, Eminem, and Jackson himself. Based on what I explained about the going publishing deal rate, you can imagine the near billion dollar value of his entire catalog. People might not have understood why he paid $47.5 million for the Beatles’ catalog, but it’s also why he’s considered one of the business geniuses of this industry.
Attorney James L. Walker is the author of “This Business of Urban Music,” a professor of Entertainment law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and alegal expert for CNN and BET.