MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time, we speak to John Branca, who as well as managing the legacy of Michael Jackson, is also a top music attorney working on/with some of the biggest artists and deals in existence. World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip, a specialist in intelligent treasury, payments and foreign exchange – created with the music industry and its needs in mind.
John Branca is smart enough to know that his inclusion in this interview is bending the rules a little.
The latest, highly-qualified candidate in MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series, Branca is nevertheless best known in industry circles as a lawyer – more specifically, a lawyer with a reputation for a super-sharp mind, and a habit of wrestling the best possible deal for artists away from the music industry’s largest institutions.
Over the course of a four-decade career in the music business, Branca has successfully fought – and won – landmark battles on behalf of creators that have set into motion a sustained change in the remuneration of artists and songwriters.
His achievements on this score are genuinely too numerous to list, but they include helping Don Henley win back his copyrights for his work with The Eagles, ensuring John Fogerty could reclaim royalties from his Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog, and extricating artists like Dr. Dre from onerous contracts, leaving them free to set their own future (which in Dre’s case led to the formation of Death Row Records).
“Technically what I do is not pure management, it’s being a ‘lawyer-manager’, but it’s a role that can be very important to an artist when utilized properly.”
Branca also orchestrated The Bee Gees’ acquisition of their entire master recording catalog (which in 2016 the band sold/licensed to Capitol Music Group), and, most famously, he aided Michael Jackson’s fight to regain the rights to his recordings. (You can see why Martin Bandier called Branca the No.1 music publishing attorney in the world.)
These days, Branca – a partner at law firm Ziffren Brittenham LLP – says he considers himself a “lawyer-manager” (see; we’re bending the rules, not breaking them), not only overseeing activity involving Michael Jackson, but also helping artists like The Beach Boys renegotiate deals for their catalogs.
“Often what certain lawyers do overlaps or contributes to what the actual manager does,” says Branca. “I don’t compete with managers, we work with managers, but the best use of a lawyer is [for us] to be part of the business team that provides strategic advice, helps plan tours, negotiates record deals and oversees estate planning.
“Technically it’s not pure management, it’s being a ‘lawyer-manager’, but it’s a role that can be very important to an artist when utilized properly.”
In addition to his work representing artists, Branca’s impact in the ‘dollars and cents’ column of the modern music business is hardly inconsequential. It began in 1985, when he helped Michael Jackson buy ATV Music Publishing for just $47.5m – a deal which netted Jackson the rights to The Beatles’ song catalog.
ATV Music Publishing then merged with Sony Music Publishing in 1995 (another deal in which Branca played an instrumental role), leaving Jackson with a 50% shareholding in the consequent company, Sony/ATV.
“MBW has confirmed that the return on Jackson’s initial $47.5m investment in ATV Music exceeded 2,000% over the course of 31 years”
In 2016, Sony acquired the Jackson Estate’s 50% shareholding in Sony/ATV for $750m. With yearly cash distributions taken into account, MBW has confirmed, the return on Jackson’s initial $47.5m investment in ATV Music exceeded 2,000% over the course of 31 years.
Branca also negotiated a deal for the Jackson Estate to own a 10% stake in EMI Music Publishing when a Sony-led consortium bought that business in 2012. Six years on, in 2018, Sony bought out the Jackson estate’s 10% stake in EMP for $287.5m, before the major fully acquired the EMP business in a separate $2.3bn deal with Mubadala.
Branca’s complex “lawyer-manager” process and creative thinking has propelled the reinvigoration of the Michael Jackson catalog and brand, with the artist’s posthumous earnings now exceeding $2.5 billion. Jackson’s music attracted over 7.3 billion streams last year alone, says Branca, making him the No.1 streaming catalog artist in the world. And in late 2020, Forbes once again placed Michael Jackson at No.1 on its delightfully-named Highest Paid Dead Celebrities list.
Other huge music business deals in which Branca has played a hand include the formation and sale of Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records, the recent establishment of Saban Music Group, and the sale of Berry Gordy’s Jobete Music – the publishing house of Motown classics – to EMI. The Jobete sale took part across three separate deals: EMI bought 50% in 1997 for $132m; another 30% in 2003 for $110m; and the final 20% in 2004 for $80m. Total deal price: $322m.
Branca also represented Vivendi and Matsushita in their purchase of Universal Music Group in the nineties. And he did two transformative music biz deals – estimated at $50m each – back-to-back in the sale of the Leiber & Stoller catalog to Sony/ATV in 2007 and the sale of Steven Tyler’s Aerosmith publishing catalog to Primary Wave in 2008.
Contemporarily, Branca is busier than ever buying and selling important music catalogs, producing various Michael Jackson ventures (including a film and Broadway musical), and leading the music department at Ziffren Brittenham.
Ziffren Brittenham has a strong claim to be the premier entertainment law firm in the world. The power of its film and television division is unparalleled: it counts Pixar, DreamWorks, Barack and Michelle Obama, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Tyler Perry, LeBron James, Idris Elba, Emma Stone, Sacha Baron Cohen, Graham King, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Harrison Ford, and the late Chadwick Boseman as clients.
In the music department, Branca and his partners David Lande and David Byrnes represent icons like Beyoncé, Travis Scott, Pharrell Williams, Enrique Iglesias, Justin Timberlake, and Shakira. Branca, Lande, and Byrnes’ expertise in the field of music publishing rights has led to their involvement in a score of publishing catalog sales in the modern marketplace (some of which have been reported, and many of which, says Branca, remain confidential).
They have also been on the forefront of creating revenue outside of the traditional music business, including negotiating deals for music artists such as Blake Shelton, Alicia Keys and Kelly Clarkson to become television hosts.
Branca has worked with an array of superstars down the years, including the names mentioned here plus The Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana, ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac and The Doors (whom he once supported as a teenage musician in his band The Other Half). But, to a degree, it’s Branca’s relationship with Michael Jackson that continues to define his career.
New York-born Branca began representing Jackson in 1980 – a professional relationship that, aside from one break (which we get into below), lasted until the star’s death in 2009 and beyond. Amongst many direct contributions to Jackson’s career, Branca helped create and co-produce the hugely successful Michael Jackson ONE show with Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas, as well as Jackson’s THE IMMORTAL world tour, which ranks in the Top 10 grossing music tours of all time. Branca also co-produced two Spike Lee documentaries: Bad 25 and Michael Jackson: from Motown to Off the Wall.
Branca is, professionally and personally, a fierce protector of the Jackson legacy – and is currently waging a legal war against the Emmy-winning HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland.
The Jackson Estate accuses HBO of “reprehensible disparagement of Michael Jackson” in its suit, whose opening sentence literally reads: “Michael Jackson is innocent. Period.” (The Jackson Estate is seeking to force HBO into public arbitration, alleging that footage in Leaving Neverland saw the AT&T-owned network violate a 1992 contract for a Michael Jackson Dangerous concert film, which contained a non-disparagement provision.)
MBW catches up with Branca on the phone from his Beverly Hills home, where he says he is keeping busy during COVID-19 lockdown by hiking, listening to audiobooks – and making deals, obviously…
You’ve been an advocate for artist and songwriter rights throughout your career. Which of your achievements in that space are you most proud of and why?
Things have changed substantially over the years in the business so far as artist rights are concerned. People tend to forget there was a time where everything was weighted in the favor of the record companies and publishers.
Coming up in my career, it was very important to fight for artists and songwriters. Over the years I’ve helped Don Henley reclaim the ownership of his Eagles copyrights; secured royalties on Creedence Clearwater Revival masters for John Fogerty which he never had; renegotiated rates for legacy artists like the Beach Boys and The Doors to bring them from the sort of slave wages they received in the ’60s to modern rates; secured ownership of recordings for the Bee Gees; secured ownership for Michael Jackson of his recordings, music videos and songs.
More recently, for Justin Timberlake and several other artists we have gotten them out of onerous contracts, emancipating them from difficult contracts.
What does an ‘onerous’ recordings contract look like to you – and what does a fair or modern contract look like to you?
When I was working with Jeff Kwatinetz in representing the Backstreet Boys, they were signed to Lou Pearlman, as an example; they had sold worldwide close to 30 million albums, and maybe been paid at best $2m or $3m – clearly unfair.
“I’ve always been an artist / independent label / songwriter representative, unlike others who also represent the major record companies.”
It was important to get them out of that contract, to get them what they were entitled to. And once we did that, we were able to then negotiate an unbelievable deal with Live Nation for a worldwide tour, and re-negotiate their tour with Jive/Zomba Records.
Back in the day, record contracts were eight, nine, ten albums long, with the options being with the record company – you seldom see that kind of contract today. The leverage has swung in favor of the artist.
These days we regularly see artists with their own LLC companies licensing their music for shorter terms to the majors, as well as getting better splits and larger advances. Does that make you happy?
I’ve always been an artist / independent label / songwriter representative, unlike others who also represent the [major] record companies. But the truth is, deals have to be fair for all parties – for the artist, the label, and the publisher. That way everyone can win together.
At what stage did Michael Jackson get to own his music on the recorded side, and why did you re-up with Sony for the DISTRIBUTION DEAL IN 2018?
When I started representing Michael in 1980 right after Off The Wall came out, he did not own his masters – and he was in a contract as a family member of the Jacksons. We renegotiated that deal so he had his own contract and then he put out Thriller.
After Thriller, needless to say, we had a vast amount of leverage. Walter Yetnikoff was the head of [CBS/Sony], and he did the right thing; we were able to secure for Michael ownership for all of his master recordings and his videos.
“Walter Yetnikoff was the head of [CBS/Sony], and he did the right thing; we were able to secure for Michael ownership for all of his master recordings and his videos.”
When Michael tragically passed away in 2009, the deal with Sony – our distribution deal – was almost up. So we were in a position to renegotiate that deal to extend Sony’s term of rights to distribute Michael’s recordings, and then we renewed it again a few years later.
We did this primarily because of Rob Stringer who is one of the industry’s great record executives and who has had a long relationship with Michael’s music, including overseeing the marketing and promotion of Michael’s History album.
Also Sony’s done a very good job with Michael, and they paid us a lot of money! All good reasons.
Generally, how do you see the trend of artists reclaiming their rights playing out over the next decade, and how will that change the shape of the record business?
There’s always been a split in the kind of record deals you see: some artists coming up sign deals that are onerous, and other artists through popularity on social media are able to command better terms.
“The big artists have more leverage than ever.”
We also have in the United States the issue of the termination of transfer, the ability for certain artists to regain certain copyrights. It parallels what’s going on in sports: the big artists have more leverage than ever.
Where do you get your passion from to fight for artists?
I always felt I was either going to go into either the music business or the sports business – my dad and uncle were professional baseball players. I was a musician, not a good one, mind you, but I wrote music for my band and we got a record deal when I was 16 years old. I think music and artists have always been in my blood. If you had told me when I was a kid growing up that I could represent Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Brian Wilson or Michael Jackson, I’d have said: ‘How much do I have to pay you?!’ I’m serious.
“My uncle Ralph was the first player to embrace Jackie Robinson; they became lifelong friends.”
My uncle, Ralph Branca, came up with The Dodgers. His first full season was 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. My uncle Ralph was the first player to embrace Jackie, they became lifelong friends and Ralph maintained a friendship with [Jackie’s wife] Rachel Robinson.
In his own way, Ralph stood beside Jackie – Jackie had to bear the brunt of great racism. So fighting for the right thing, fairness and justice, has always been a part of my family legacy. And growing up in the Sixties, being a musician during the days of Vietnam and social protest, I came by that role honestly.
What other standout trends do you expect to shift the face of the music industry in the years ahead?
I’m not that prescient and would defer to the prognosticators. There are some very smart people and companies that are able to forecast future trends.
I will say this, though: Roger Daltrey once famously said, ‘I hope I die before I get old,’ and Mick Jagger said he couldn’t imagine still singing Satisfaction at the age of 40. And yet here we are: they’re in their seventies, and their music is still going strong.
“Artists need to give some thought in their estate planning, as to who they appoint to represent their estates and carry on their legacy… You can really see the difference, for example, in the Michael Jackson Estate versus the Prince Estate.”
Artists need to pay attention to their legacy. They need to give some thought in their estate planning, as to who they appoint to represent their estates and carry on their legacy, and be very specific about it. You can really see the difference, for example, in the Michael Jackson Estate versus the Prince Estate. And yes, some of it is about management, but really it was Michael appointing people who he thought could handle his legacy, whereas Prince left it to the courts and a bank.
It’s very important when I look at some of the artists we represent now; it’s probably not a bad idea for an artist to think about how they want their copyrights licensed [long into the future], how they want their legacy handled, do they want holograms…
… speaking of which, holograms were a hot industry topic for a minute, and a Michael Jackson hologram caused a real stir. Is there any future in it? Is it too complicated licensing-wise?
I don’t think the issue is licensing; it’s not that complicated. I’m just not a big fan of holograms.
In short doses, like the Tupac hologram or the Michael Jackson hologram we did on the Billboard Music Awards [in 2014], I like them – I think they’re fun, they remind us of the artists and you get a sense they’re there with you. But as an entertainment vehicle for extended periods of time, they’re just not dynamic enough.
I know there are companies out there putting on hologram tours for Roy Orbison, Maria Callas, Jackie Wilson and others. I’m not saying I wouldn’t go see one. But I don’t think it’s as powerful as seeing a live Cirque show inspired by the artist.
Can you talk us through the sale of the Jackson Estate’s 10% EMI Music Publishing stake, but also explain where that leaves Mijac – Jackson’s publishing company which owns the rights to Jackson songs and other hits? What’s the future for that company?
I represented Michael in buying ATV in 1985, and we merged it with Sony in 1995, creating Sony/ATV.
I then assisted Sony and Rob Wiesenthal and Marty Bandier in buying EMI [Music Publishing in 2012], but they needed the permission of the Michael Jackson estate [as then-Sony/ATV co-owner] to make that acquisition. As a result, we were able to secure for the Estate an ownership interest in EMI. When Sony then exercised its buy-sell on Sony/ATV and we sold that [in 2016], we retained our interest in EMI, and then when Sony decided to buy out ourselves and Mubadala, we had a very big payday.
“We retained our interest in EMI, and then when Sony decided to buy out ourselves and Mubadala, we had a very big payday.”
Mijac remains a very active, thriving music publishing company. We will never sell Mijac in a manner to give up control – it will be passed down to Michael’s children. We just purchased the renewal rights for the Sly & The Family Stone catalog.
It’s not known by many, but Mijac owns some of the greatest copyrights in the history of popular music – things like People Get Ready, Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, When A Man Loves a Woman, and Great Balls of Fire, as well as classic Ray Charles songs, Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson, and many more.
Is it true that Google SHOWED INTEREST in buying the Estate’s 50% stake in Sony/ATV?
That’s not something I would discuss at this time, but we considered all possible sources of interest.
Multiples being paid for music publishing rights are escalating out there as new money pours into the business. Has the music industry realized its true value yet?
As long as streaming revenues continue to increase, valuations will keep going up. The multiples are at an all-time high; when I sold Berry Gordy’s Jobete Music for 20 times, it set a record, and then when I sold Leiber & Stoller for 23 times NPS, I thought no-one would ever exceed that. But deals we have done recently have exceeded that valuation metric.
“When I sold Leiber & Stoller for 23 times NPS, I thought no-one would ever exceed that. But deals we have done recently have exceeded that valuation metric.”
Valuations and multiples are at an all-time high, based on the fact the music business has turned out to be a good place to invest money as of late. There was a time when people thought it was a dying business, but clearly it’s not.
You’ve been clear on your views of Leaving Neverland. How do you view your role in handling the legacy of an artist in the face of serious allegations like that?
Never give up. In this era, sometimes very unfair conclusions and opinions can be drawn, based not on fact or evidence, but instead based on a media phenomenon. Unfortunately, the legacy press are not in a position to do their homework or their research anymore. And tragically, deceased artists have no protection under the libel laws, which is completely unfair and must change.
“One of the reasons why we’re insistent on having this arbitration is to bring out the truth, and to really say shame on you AT&T and shame on you HBO for doing this.”
Media and information travels so rapidly now without verification. In the modern era, especially in the United States, it’s become popular to take a position or opinion without examining the facts. In the case of Leaving Neverland [in Branca’s view], these stories are not true. It’s shocking that AT&T and HBO would do that.
One of the reasons why we’re insistent on having this arbitration is to bring out the truth, and to really say shame on you AT&T and shame on you HBO for doing this.
Clearly, you’re completely convinced of Michael’s innocence. What gives you such certainty?
Take a look at the statements made by these two individuals, and then do research that can be independently verified. Michael’s fans have done the research; there have been certain journalists, especially in England, that have done the research. In this era it’s not popular [to do so]; everyone wants to find a culprit. But Michael Jackson is not Harvey Weinstein, he’s not Robert Kelly [aka R.Kelly].
Nobody else [since the movie came out] have made these allegations – doesn’t that tell you something? It does to me.
From across your career, which moment has been the biggest challenge, and what did you learn from it?
Michael Jackson fired me in 1990. I was 39 years old, and I didn’t want my career to be over yet. But in the aftermath, I’ve never had so many people hire me – Don Henley, Rick Rubin. Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Robbie Robertson, Matsushita… it was unbelievable. Not only did I survive, but I prospered and I did so because I did the right thing.
“Michael Jackson fired me in 1990. I was 39 years old, and I didn’t want my career to be over yet.”
So when Michael came back in 1993, I was [professionally speaking] bigger and stronger than ever. But it was a challenge [when Jackson walked away] – a very turbulent time.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given – in the music business or otherwise – and who gave it to you?
I had the opportunity to work alongside some of the legends of our business: Jerry Weintraub, Mo Ostin, Irving Azoff, Walter Yetnikoff.
You learn from people like that, especially when you’re younger and you’re coming up. It’s interesting: people think it’s all about lawyers or business advisers giving advice to their clients, but what I learned from Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Barry Gibb, Brian Wilson, Carlos Santana, Don Henley, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Berry Gordy, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mike Tyson, Leiber & Stoller… you get a Harvard Business School PHD in the music business. It’s something you can’t buy, there’s only one way to acquire it and that’s by doing it.
I remember when Michael Jackson first hired me in 1980, Clarence Avant, who’s since become known as the godfather of black music, said to me: ‘You can build a career off representing this young man, Michael Jackson.’ I never forgot it, and it was prophetic.
If you could change one thing about the music business, what would it be and why?
I’d like to see it more about standing up for principles and ideals, social justice, and less about ego and self-aggrandisement.
It’s important for artists to take a leadership role in society and stand up for what’s right; I’d like to see more of that. Social consciousness characterized certain artists in the ’60s, like Bob Dylan for example; Michael then did it in the ’80s by breaking the colour barrier on MTV.
“It’s important for artists to take a leadership role in society and stand up for what’s right; I’d like to see more of that.”
Entertainment professionals should do the same. I am honored to have been invited by the law schools and business schools at Harvard, USC, UCLA, Stanford and others to share my knowledge and experience with their students and staff.
I also want to work to create fairness and equality. I was honored recently to be asked to join the board of directors of the Jackie Robinson Foundation and participate in their scholarship and mentoring program, and to retain my position as Honorary Chairman of MusiCares. Let’s give back to the industry that has been so good to us.
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