And that’s just the beginning for the King of Rock-and-Roll and other long-dead celebrities. Reviving a corpse from a cryogenic deep freeze is still the stuff of science fiction, but every other promotional possibility is on the table. Jamie Salter, the branding guru who owns a majority of Elvis’s estate, is planning a “live” show in Las Vegas with Presley appearing as a hologram, much like the one of Michael Jackson that appeared last year. Pinup queen Bettie Page, managed by dead-celeb super-agent Mark Roesler, is slated for a holographic burlesque.
Today, deceased icons from pop culture’s heyday are enjoying unprecedented success, out-earning even their former flesh-and-blood selves, says Salter, one of the new breed of brand managers using technology to wring big bucks from dead superstars.
They are profitable in part because they first captivated fans in a pre-Internet age of truly mass media, dominating the popular imagination in ways few contemporaries can match, Salter says.
Even better, they aren’t able to create the sort of mischief that bedeviled their handlers back in the day, potentially damaging their brand in the bargain. They can no longer lapse into drug-induced comas in hotel rooms (Elvis), assault girlfriends with vodka bottles (Jimi Hendrix) or set themselves on fire while freebasing (Richard Pryor).
“They can’t get pulled over for drunk driving,” says Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist with a celebrity clientele. “Their reputations are intact.”
Bets on the dead have lately paid off big. Salter bought the Elvis estate, including Graceland and the rights to the singer’s image and music, from Core Media in November 2013. Salter’s Authentic Brands expects profits to rise by 25 percent this year thanks to Elvis-themed bathrobes, calendars, cookie jars, cuff links, luggage and, oh yeah, music.
“We bought Elvis at the right time,” Salter says. “None of the kids listen to his music, but look at how they’re dressing, and their flipped-up haircuts.”
Resurrection experts like Salter are making money on even-dustier icons. Visa used the voice of Amelia Earhart during last year’s Winter Olympics in an ad celebrating women’s ski jumping.
The bizarre business works because the truly famous tend to remain famous, even in death, says Nathanael Fast, a professor at the University of Southern California who has done research on the psychology of fame. People like to talk about things they have in common, Fast says, and celebrities are among the more pronounced topographical features of our cultural common ground.
Indeed, dead musicians today regularly outsell living ones. And no one crushes mere mortals like Michael Jackson. When he died of a lethal cocktail of the anesthetic propofol and the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam in 2009, the King of Pop was more than half a billion dollars in debt, according to a filing in Los Angeles Superior Court — much of it from the upkeep of his 2,700-acre Neverland Ranch, legal bills from defending child-molestation charges and legendary spending on Rolls-Royces and other luxury goods. If Jackson were an investment, he would have been a junk bond.
The singer’s savviest financial move was to name as his executors Los Angeles lawyer John Branca and music producer and family friend John McClain. With Jackson no longer dangling babies over balconies, Branca and McClain have been able to get down to business. In their hands, the Jackson estate made $250 million by extending the singer’s contract with Sony and more than $260 million from “This Is It,” a film cobbled together from footage of Jackson rehearsing for concerts canceled in the wake of his death.
The estate shared a further $371 million in ticket sales with Cirque du Soleil on a big-top-inspired act called — what else? — “the Immortal World Tour.”
Branca and McClain paid off Jackson’s debts in 2012. Now the money accrues to the estate and its beneficiaries: Jackson’s mother, Katherine, and his three children: Michael Joseph “Prince” Jackson Jr., 17; Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, 16; and Prince Michael Jackson II (a.k.a. Blanket), 12. Branca and McClain earn a 10 percent commission on much of the cash that flows into the estate, which so far totals $600 million, according to court documents. And 2014 could be the singer’s biggest year yet. After all, like Elvis, he’s still minting music, releasing seven albums and DVDs since his death, including the chart-topping “Xscape.”
Naturally, the Michael Industrial Complex has detractors, who accuse the estate’s managers of exploiting the star, releasing songs not up to Jackson’s standards.
“He would not have released anything like this compilation, a grab bag of outtakes and outlines assembled by Jackson’s label,” Jody Rosen wrote in Rolling Stone about 2010’s nevertheless million-selling “Michael.”
One consultant to the Jackson estate, Jeff Jampol, says that’s the single biggest challenge for managers of the dead: monetizing their memory without devaluing their good name. Jampol, 56, manages the estate of the Doors, whose Bacchus-like lead singer, Jim Morrison, died in 1971.
The Doors have done well with Jampol. Their album sales now total 1 million to 2 million a year, up from 400,000 in 2003, when Jampol joined. They’ve sold a digital box set on iTunes and in November will release “Feast of Friends,” an unfinished film chronicling their 1968 tour.
In addition to managing the Doors, Jampol shepherds the posthumous careers of Rick James, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Tupac Shakur, the Ramones and Peter Tosh. To hear Jampol tell it, he’s caring for careers as delicate and precious as Faberge eggs. One wrong product-endorsement deal or craven tribute album and a legend is reduced to mere lucre.
“It’s very gossamer,” Jampol says. “Every couple weeks, I poke my head into somebody’s office and tell them: ‘It’s now 10:45 a.m. If you’ve had coffee this morning and you’re particularly energetic, by this afternoon you could destroy what took Janis Joplin years to build. So have a careful day!’”
The estate of actor Steve McQueen, controlled by his son, Chad, and granddaughter Molly, is exceedingly cautious about entering into product-endorsement deals, says Lisa Soboslai, vice president of the Corbis Entertainment licensing company, which represents McQueen. His heirs insist on pitching products McQueen owned, including Barbour jackets, TAG Heuer watches and Triumph motorcycles. “They don’t want to do anything that’s not believable,” she says.
Jampol isn’t trying to sell old music to old fans of old artists. He’s trying to find new fans for old artists. “Every four years, there’s a brand-new crop of kids who are blank canvases,” he says. “If I can have my artist, with his or her magic, in the pop-culture conversation where those 12-year-olds are, I win.”
Jampol often enters that conversation through social media. Thanks to his efforts, the Doors have 17 million “likes” on Facebook. Wilco — whose “The Whole Love” earned a Grammy nomination in 2012 — has 630,000.
Roesler, the celebrity super-agent, is another forward thinker on the subject. He’s managed estates on behalf of heirs since 1981. One of his most profitable clients is James Dean, an actor with all the assets necessary for a boffo posthumous career: a catchy name, a timeless look and a knack for embodying rebellion.
Sadly, Dean’s death at age 24 illustrates an unfortunate truth: An early death bodes well for future returns. The music industry reinforces this truism like no other — take the “27 Club,” composed of stars cut down at that age, including Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison.
Salter, who is backed by the private-equity firm Leonard Green & Partners, got into the dead-legend business in 2010, when he bought the majority of Marilyn Monroe’s estate for more than $30 million. (He now owns all of it.) Before Salter got involved, the Monroe estate brought in less than $3 million a year through 300 licensing agreements for low-end products such as shot glasses and T-shirts. Salter has since whittled the number to 85, and the estate is on track to make about $18 million this year, according to people familiar with its dealings. He declined to comment on the revenue.
Many of his Marilyn-branded products make sense: spas and nail salons, a line of lingerie, hair spray and, soon, eyeliner. For teens, there are $25 T-shirts with Marilyn’s image and $49 body-hugging dresses, both sold at Macy’s. Last year, Monroe appeared in a TV ad for Chanel No. 5 comprising archival footage overdubbed with an interview.
“They ask you questions,” she says. “. . . What do you wear to bed? Do you wear a pajama top? The bottoms of the pajamas? A nightgown? So I said, ‘Chanel No. 5.’ ”
When Salter bought the Elvis estate, he also got Muhammad Ali’s name and image — even though the former heavyweight champion is still alive.
“He’s going to be huge,” Salter says of the 72-year-old, who suffers from acute Parkinson’s disease.
Not only did Sports Illustrated name Ali “Sportsman of the Century,” but he stands for religious freedom and social justice, having gone all the way to the Supreme Court to establish his right to conscientious-objector status during the Vietnam War.
Salter hints at a deal with a big athletic brand. “The story line has to work,” he says. “You have to remain on message. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
These days, with posthumous record releases vying with viral cat videos, the dead have to seem more alive than ever to compete for consumers’ attention. After Ali dies, or perhaps even before, we should expect to see him reenter the ring, probably in Vegas, possibly as a hologram — and most definitely in his prime.
This article appeared in Bloomberg Pursuits magazine.