By Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Atria, 293 pp.
The accountants must breathe a sigh of relief whenever a certain troublesome type of celebrity client dies unexpectedly.
Take Michael Jackson. The singer was in debt when he died five years ago, but today his finances are in better health than ever. Thanks to capable management by his estate, the King of Pop has brought in $700 million since his fatal overdose in June 2009. Finally, the Gloved One is back atop the charts: That’s more money than any other musician, alive or dead, generated during the same period.
When he was offstage, Jackson’s oddball exploits and alleged crimes kept the tabloids filled, but this biography, “Michael Jackson, Inc.,” leaves out the juicy stuff to focus on the pop icon as a business entity. With his soft-drink deals and sneaker endorsement, Jackson was a new kind of celebrity mogul, argues Zack O’Malley Greenburg, an editor at Forbes (and, as a child, the actor who played the ailing boy in the movie “Lorenzo’s Oil”). “Jackson fundamentally changed the formula for monetizing fame forever,” Greenburg writes. Today’s entrepreneurial artists, such as Jay Z, are following a trail once blazed by Jackson’s famous black loafers.
Although he later became famous for his erratic behavior and million-dollar spending sprees, music executives who worked with Jackson from the beginning of his career turn up in Greenburg’s pages to declare that the young singer had a head for business. Jackson wrote notes in the margins of his contracts, recalls a former CBS records executive; Jackson made attentive comments in meetings, remembers another business associate. Unfortunately, the most memorable anecdotes that Greenburg unearthed tend to undermine his thesis — such as the time Jackson called his lawyer in the middle of the night to complain about a broken pinball machine. Oh, Michael!
Although he was an obsessive worker for much of his career, some of the singer’s successes came nearly in spite of him. After filming the groundbreaking music video for “Thriller,” Jackson tried to halt its release, suddenly worried that the paranormal themes would jeopardize his spot in heaven. Later, he got cold feet about publishing his memoirs, although the book, titled “Moonwalk,” climbed to the top of the bestseller lists.
Jackson made at least one brilliant investment. In 1985, he acquired a music-publishing catalog containing the copyrights to the Beatles’ biggest hits. He bought the catalog for $47.5 million — against the advice of his financial advisers and music industry acquaintances. Today that investment is worth about $1 billion.
Jackson sorely needed the money generated by that catalog after 1993, the year his reputation was shattered by charges of child molestation. As his endorsement deals dried up, his spending habits remained unchanged. By one account quoted by Greenburg, Jackson made $13 million per year during this period but somehow managed to spend $25 million per year. To make ends meet, he took out a series of loans against his music catalog.
After 1993, Jackson ditched many of the experienced business people who had helped him become a megastar. He periodically sought new financial gurus to help him straighten out his affairs but rarely followed their guidance. Tracked down by Greenburg, most of them offered a version of the same sound bite. “Anyone that told Michael something he didn’t want to hear, Michael got rid of,” said billionaire Tom Barrack, who had been working with the singer on his proposed comeback tour.
In the year after his death, the public’s interest in Jackson’s music suddenly revived, and the King of Pop was no longer there to get in his own way. His estate, over the protests of his family, sold footage from some of his final rehearsals to Sony for $60 million. The resulting film, “This Is It,” became the highest-grossing documentary ever made.
“Immortal,” a Cirque du Soleil show based on him, is bringing in $250,000 per night for the estate. And more revenue streams for Michael Jackson Inc. are in the works.
The story comes to an abrupt end, with an unsatisfying coda — but that’s more the fault of Michael Jackson’s life and times than of his latest biographer. It’s not often that a pop star rises to the top, generates a billion dollars, and still leaves the world wondering about untapped potential and missed opportunities. The singer was a “bundle of contradictions,” Greenburg writes, “a showbiz revolutionary who eventually lost control of his personal finances.”
Would Jackson ever have regained that control? Possibly not. At the time of his death, he was scheduled to perform a series of concerts in London that would have earned him an estimated $50 million. Then again, he was thinking about buying a $55 million mansion in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. You don’t need a degree in accounting to see the problem with those two figures for a man already in debt.
Mike Musgrove is a former technology columnist for The Washington Post.