The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates: ‘A complex balancing act between the past and the future.’

Columnist Eamonn Forde (pictured inset) is a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig.

The following is an extract from his excellent (and very timely) new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, which is out now via Omnibus Press.

Eamonn Forde

At the heart of all estates is a complex balancing act between the past and the future. They have to create things that will help them hold on to existing fans while also creating entry points for potential new fans.

Focus too much on the former and the shutters may come down for the latter; cater too heavily to the latter and the former will feel excluded, patronised or belittled and slowly drift away. Plus there is the added fact that original fans will eventually age out and just appealing to them is betting everything on what is, literally, a dying audience.

All estates must therefore navigate the tensions between unapologetic esoterica and unbridled populism.

It is a type of “cradle to grave” marketing that all broad consumer brands have to work with, although in this case the core product has already completed the journey to the grave.

As the lawyer for the beneficiaries of the Vladimir Horowitz estate, Jeff Liebenson accepts that this is all a constant state of flux for any estate, but especially so in the classical music field.

“We want him [Horowitz] to be well known by the current generation and for them to appreciate his artistry,” says Liebenson. “We want to maintain his legacy and his place in the marketplace by bringing him to new listeners. We have to try and accomplish both goals simultaneously.”

There is a real pressure on those left to run an estate to ensure that the artist does not fade from the public’s view and become an anachronism. There are more opportunities now for estates to take the lead (see Chapter 8), but for a long time the estate was at the mercy of the whims of the record labels that controlled a deceased act’s recordings.

A few individuals in the past, however, took a more proactive role, seeking to spur labels into action and refusing to watch the estate sink into irrelevance.

“Alma Cogan was one of the first artists to die young with a high profile,” says Tony Wadsworth, former chairman and CEO of EMI Music UK & Ireland. “Her sister Sandra used to come in and see me on a regular basis in order to encourage me to put her sister’s music out – and she would suggest ideas for commercial release. She wanted to preserve her sister’s legend.”

A proactive approach like this could give the labels an impetus to push the catalogue. “Sandra would come in and she’d tell me stories about McCartney writing ‘Scrambled Eggs’ – that became ‘Yesterday’ – at Alma’s flat and stuff like that,” continues Wadsworth.

“So the added value that somebody like that brings in would be around the package that you would do. It wouldn’t just be a 12-track compilation with no sleeve notes. And they would bring photographs. In a way they were like a creative consultant or a marketer on the project. They were certainly adding value.”

An estate can lose its way and fail to bring in new generations of fans, thinking that older fans have more disposable income and propensity to spend, but forgetting that they will not be around for ever. This is what Jamie Salter accuses the former custodians of the Elvis Presley estate of slumping into – a posthumous dereliction of duty – before Authentic Brands Group bought its way into the Elvis business.

Behaving like a private equity firm, he spotted what he saw as a major flaw in the operation of the estate under CKX/Core Media and one that, if turned around, could dramatically boost revenues. “We looked at what was going on with Elvis Presley and we thought that it was very undervalued in terms of exploitation to the younger generation,” he says. “We felt that it needed a facelift.” Part of that facelift was to use the young Elvis to appeal to young audiences, including the creation of a cartoon series (explored in more detail below).

Music writer David Browne, however, argues that this remains an existential concern for the Presley estate even after Authentic Brands Group got involved. When we spoke, he was working on a story for Rolling Stone about the Elvis estate and he spoke about the challenges it was facing. “It’s sort of declined a bit now financially – it’s not quite what it was,” he says. “It makes money, but not as much. And it’s 66 years since the Sun sessions [Elvis’s first recordings]. That’s an insanely long ago period of time.”

In the Rolling Stone piece, published in March 2020, Browne argued that the Elvis “empire is in need of a reboot”, noting that Elvis memorabilia sales slipped from $4 million in 2017 to $1.5 million in 2019. He added for good measure that a poll of consumers aged 18–24 in the UK in 2017 found that almost 30 per cent of respondents had never listened to a single Elvis Presley song.

The piece concluded that the estate had to stop treating Elvis as a deceased rock star and put him into a much broader context so that young consumers could find their way in. “You don’t present him as a rocker,” John Jackson, the Sony Music executive in charge of the Presley catalogue, told Browne. “You present him as this iconic American story.”

David Hirshland, an executive at BMG in the US, claims this macro recontextualisation is something the Johnny Cash estate has achieved – in part by playing on ideas of him as an outsider, a maverick and a man of the people. He has become a country music icon but also, and arguably more importantly, an American iconoclast. “Johnny Cash, every year, becomes more and more a popular figure in American culture,” he says.

Moving an act beyond just the genre they are most associated with comes with risks as it may dilute their appeal, but their ongoing relevance is index-linked to the continued relevance of that genre of music happening in the background. The figure quoted above, 30 per cent of respondents not knowing an Elvis song, is a clear and present danger not just for estates but also for entire genres of music.

Sam Arlen, who runs the estate of his father, the composer Harold Arlen, says this is visibly affecting the Great American Songbook writers. While artists like Rod Stewart will cover these jazz and popular music standards from the early 20th century, younger acts are more fearful of tackling them, believing it could date them. As such, the songs are starting to slip from the public consciousness.

It is too simplistic to see this in terms of fans and non-fans, as if there is a reductive and binary process in action here. Bill Zysblat, co-founder of RZO and a key figure in the business dealings of the David Bowie estate, suggests there is a typology of fandom that should guide how estates operate and the types of projects they undertake. “The most important thing you can possibly do is maintain the integrity of the estate and continue doing only what the artists would have done,” he argues.

“The public is very, very smart and if you do something that a fan truly knows that artist never would have done, you have hurt more than that one project: you might have lost a super-fan. You’re not gaining super-fans every day of the week in an estate like you might be with a hit single on the radio. So the best advice you can give anyone is this: do what the artist would have done, do what’s right for the legacy and don’t worry about the money. The money will either come or it will not.” Then he adds with a flourish, “Just don’t screw it up.”

Jeff Jampol of JAM Inc is firmly of the belief that screwing it up is the default setting of too many estates, especially those who are promiscuous in their licensing and who do not realise that short-term boosts in revenue can cause long-term damage to an estate. As he told the BBC, “I don’t think that builds anything. I think what it does is it decays the body of work until there’s no body left. To me, my goal is to put my hands underneath the body of work and reanimate and bring it back up and put it back to the pop culture conversation today in a way that’s meaningful and resonant to an 11–30-year-old. And if I can do that, the art and the message will live on for ever. And so far, so good.”

Jampol has many arguments and analogies here for how bad estates are run and why good estates can learn from their many mistakes. The biggest problem, he feels, is that estates are wasting too much of their time and expenditure super-serving existing (older) fans. “As a company, we spend 85–90 per cent of our efforts focusing on 11–30-year-olds whereas all my vendors and partners are focused 100 per cent on 40–80-year-olds,” he claims.

His first major lesson comes from the matchstick analogy. He argues that every estate, when they begin, has between six and eight matches, with each match representing a different project. Do too much too quickly, the argument goes, and you will soon run out of matches. “If you’re a beneficiary and somebody comes to you and says, ‘Hey, let’s do a biopic’, you might think, ‘OK, great, that sounds good,’” he proposes. “And then you do it and then you strike the match and you light it and everybody looks and it glows and everybody says, ‘Ohh, look! There’s light.’ Then after 10 or 15 seconds the match goes out and you’ve got a big empty dark fireplace again and you’re left with one burnt match. Just do that five or six times – end of legacy!”

His other major analogy is related to escalators and the need for estates to keep moving against odds that are propelling them into irrelevance. “Having a pop culture legacy is kind of like walking up a down escalator,” he says. “So if you’re standing still, you’re actually not standing still – you’re moving backwards, you’re moving downwards. So what you have to do is you have to have enough forward momentum to overcome the downward trend of the escalator; but not move so fast that you trip all over yourself and you end up at the bottom anyway. So standing still is not standing still; standing still is receding.”

He regards himself as a cultural custodian and the conduit through which to take the art of deceased artists on to new generations of fans. “What we do is we figure out what the magic is and we put it in front of potential new fans in a way that is authentic and credible to them,” he says. “To me, this stuff is important. Art is important. Art saves lives. Art was my road to sanity. There are messages in these songs and the way these artists lived their lives and it’s fucking important and it needs to be carried to future generations. I’m here to help do that to the extent that I can.”

“A failure to bring in new fans through whatever route works best could mean that the business of the estate will start to shrink and the act’s legacy could go into terminal decline – essentially meaning a second death for the artist.”

Marc Allan of Red Light Management, who represents the Jerry Garcia family, says that the past is critical to draw in new fans and give them the correct context through which to understand an artist and their legacy. In the US in particular, there is a strong college tradition of having a period where The Grateful Dead soundtrack covers much of your social life. Allan says that the nature of fandom today around Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead has to replicate the nature of fandom around them in the 1960s and 1970s.

“One key thing that I would want to say is this: what we’re really trying to do when we are preserving the legacy and when we’re making these actions is we’re trying to deliver something for the fans and we’re trying to continue that relationship that was there. Fandom is a very special thing. That is the thing that we work from. We’re trying to make sure that the new fans have the same relationship to this music that the older fans do – and that they understand the history and the story of this community so it can be passed on, moved on and continue to grow in this modern day.”

Darryl Porter, who runs the Miles Davis estate, argues that there are ways (covered in detail below) to use remixes and samples to introduce old acts to new audiences, but the original albums – especially those regarded as the peak of the artist’s work in their lifetime – should remain sacrosanct. If the art is good enough, he argues, it will carry through to each subsequent generation of listener. “Keeping the integrity of the albums is very important to us because, as we introduce those albums to new generations and to new Miles fans, this music is new to them, it’s fresh to them,” he says. “The Persians have a saying that the fish is always fresh when you catch it. That’s how we view Miles’s albums when we’re introducing them to new generations of fans.”

A failure to bring in new fans through whatever route works best could mean that the business of the estate will start to shrink and the act’s legacy could go into terminal decline – essentially meaning a second death for the artist.

Chuck Fleckenstein from the Roy Orbison estate lays it all out in cold economic terms. “You have to continue to maintain that artist or that artist’s relevance,” he says. “Estates that are not actively and properly managed are seeing downward revenues.”

The paradox for estates is that new audiences are most open to becoming fans of a deceased artist in the immediate aftermath of their death – a period when the heirs are grieving and the estate is often unprepared to capitalise on this, simply because all the organisational and legal issues around its establishment have yet to be resolved.Music Business Worldwide

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