How dead songwriters like Michael Jackson still earn millions
Streams are key to chart success, but radio remains a more lucrative source of income for the King of Pop, explains leading music economist Barry Massarsky.
A familiar name sat atop Forbes’ list of 2019’s highest-paid dead celebrities when it was released in November.
For the seventh consecutive year – and for the ninth time since his death in October 2009 – Michael Jackson earned more money than any other late icon.
Jackson’s estate – headed by his former attorney, John Branca, and music industry executive John McClain – brought in $60m in 2019, taking the King of Pop’s posthumous earnings to an incredible $2.46bn
In comparison, Elvis Presley – the second highest-paid musician over that period – has earned $530m.
Much of Jackson’s earnings in death have come from the sales of his stakes in two enormous music publishers.
The larger of those deals traces all the way back to 1981, when Jackson stayed at the home of Paul McCartney.
In between collaborating on songs like Say Say Say, the pair discussed music publishing, and McCartney explained the lucrative business of purchasing the rights to other songwriters’ songs and earning royalties off them.
A fascinated Jackson joked that he would one day buy the Beatles’ back catalogue. Four years later, he did just that, purchasing ATV Music – and with it the entire Lennon-McCartney song catalogue – for $47.5m.
McCartney – who will headline Glastonbury in 2020 after being favourite in the online betting – wasn’t happy, but Jackson told him it was “just business”.
ATV later merged with Sony to form the world’s largest music publishing catalogue, and in 2016 – seven years after Jackson’s death – the King of Pop’s estate sold his 50 per cent stake in Sony/ATV for $750m, more than 15 times his original investment.
Two years later, Sony paid $287.5m to Jackson’s estate to acquire another of his investments – a 9.8 per cent share in EMI Music Publishing.
While those deals contributed over $1bn to Jackson’s estate, the fortune amassed since his death hasn’t just come from selling off his stakes in other songwriters’ music.
Jackson’s own songs remain incredibly lucrative, and in January Broadcast Music Inc (BMI) extended its 41-year deal to represent his back catalogue, meaning the performance rights organisation will continue to collect royalties when Jackson’s music is played on the radio, television and internet.
Barry Massarsky, an economist who for the past 28 years has specialised in the valuation of music catalogues, says the deal is particularly valuable to BMI because of trends within the radio industry, where over 55 per cent of airplay in the United States is identified as songs that aren’t current, known as ‘gold’ music.
“Jackson's deal with BMI speaks to the importance of back catalogue to radio, which is the largest source of income that a writer will earn on his songwriter royalties,” Massarsky says.
“I would say that at least half of his revenue is coming from radio.
“It's remarkable that we talk about streaming, downloads and so forth, but streaming for a large base is really confined to current pop and R&B/urban music.
“People who continue to listen to commercial radio in the United States are older, because younger listeners have gravitated to streaming.”
That means that radio stations “are skewing towards an older demographic and therefore they are playing an older inventory of music”. Jackson’s catalogue, meanwhile, is “highly valued” simply because he’s responsible for “so much of that hit-driven material from 30 to 40 years ago”.
It’s not unusual for an artist’s music to experience a sudden rise in popularity immediately after their death.
In the month after he passed away in 2009, 33 of Jackson’s songs charted in the UK top 100.
A fleeting boost in sales or streams is not a major factor in the value of a late songwriter’s back catalogue to a company like BMI, however.
What’s really important is that ‘standards’ – hit songs that have retained popularity over a number of years – have established value that isn’t going to decrease dramatically like a contemporary hit might.
“It's not the death, it's the format of the late songwriter,” Massarsky says.
“Standards like Michael Jackson tend to trade at a higher value because they’re proven. There are no kinks in the value chain, you know exactly how it's going to land because it has a nice, even track record to rely on.
“These fantastic iconic songs, they just live and breathe throughout the marketplace.”
Although radio is the driving force behind the value of Jackson’s back catalogue, he remains hugely popular on streaming services. He has 13m followers on Spotify – more than contemporary artists Future and J. Cole – and currently ranks 101st in monthly listeners with 21m.
The value of gold music like Jackson’s is likely to increase even further as older listeners adjust to the changing industry by using streaming services more and more.
The King of Pop, therefore, will remain as such for a long, long time.