Extending the commercial afterlife of music icons requires a careful balancing act
Tupac Shakur has been dead since 1996, but his star is only on the rise. Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash remain in the public eye with projects that range from biopics to hip-hop mashups to CD retrospectives to retail lines. It’s all part of the careful balancing act of extending the commercial afterlife of music icons without running afoul of the most important credo: Never mess with the brand.
(From the pages of the April 2 issue of Variety.)
There’s an art, and a bit of science, to managing the estates of music icons whose works resonate long after they leave the corporeal world. The enigmatic rap star Tupac Shakur has logged six top 10 albums since he was killed in 1996. His spectral image loomed large over the hipsters at the Coachella music festival last year with a much-buzzed-about hologram that was crafted for the performance by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, his former label mates on the infamous Death Row Records. But that’s just the tip of the Tupac-related licensing and media blitz likely to be unleashed in the coming years.
Afeni shakur, the rapper’s mother, earlier this year inked a deal with JAM, the L.A.-based firm headed by musicbiz vet Jeff Jampol that manages the posthumous careers of such artists at Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Rick James. He’s also a consultant to Michael Jackson’s estate.
The oversight of those estates is far more involved than licensing the occasional track to a movie or TV program in today’s long-tail, multiplatform media landscape. The challenge is to keep the icon’s work and likeness in the public eye without tarnishing the artistic legacy, which is where all value lies. The first rule of dead-celeb management: Don’t put out junk. In the case of musicians, that means being selective on posthumous releases, whether it’s items from the vault (not every note committed to tape demands to be heard by the public) or licensing tunes for use in other media. For seminal music forces, the question of how to best manage digital sales licensing options around the world is a full-time job for label execs.
“Afeni Shakur said something very interesting to me,” Jampol says. “She talked about how Tupac had a blueprint for the message he wanted to carry. That word ‘blueprint’ sparked a light bulb in my head. I realized if you look at what these artists said, what they did, and the art they created, they will reveal to you the blueprint. They will tell you where to go.”
Afeni Shakur has been fiercely protective of her son’s image since he was gunned down in drive-by shooting in Las Vegas at the age of 25. A superstar from the start of his career, Tupac has exerted outsized influence on rap and hip-hop ever since. Dr. Dre persuaded Afeni to allow the Tupac hologram for Coachella, and the response clearly underscored the depth of interest that remains in the rapper’s dramatic tale. He also got a prime platform in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” which featured an anthemic theme song that was a mash-up of James Brown’s “The Payback” and Shakur’s “Untouchable.”
Execs at Interscope Records, Shakur’s last label, suggested that Afeni retain Jampol’s firm to ensure the estate would be carefully tended to with a long-term strategy in the same way Jimi Hendrix’s family has managed his vault after waging a long legal battle to control those rights.
Among the first Tupac projects in the works is a prospective Broadway tuner featuring new music derived from his lyrics and poetry.
“My intention today is the same as it has been since 1996. I feel it is our responsibility to make sure that Tupac’s full body of work is made available to his fans,” Afeni Shakur tells “Variety.” “As far as future strategies, I can say that I have great faith in the direction we will go with our new management in place.”
Meaningful money can be accrued if an artist’s assets and image are managed thoughtfully. The top 10 of Forbes’ list of top-earning dead celebrities in 2012 included four music greats: Michael Jackson ($145 million), Elvis Presley ($55 million), Bob Marley ($17 million) and John Lennon ($12 million). The heirs and reps of other deceased music icons are striving to move their charges into that rarefied territory.
Joplin’s Southern Comfort-soaked life story has been chased by Hollywood for years. More recently, her canon has inspired everything from “One Night With Janis Joplin,” a new musical running at the Pasadena Playhouse (and probably destined to travel), and Made for Pearl, a website that sells haute couture versions of the funky clothing and jewelry that exemplified the singer’s hippie-chic style.
Presley’s estate is such a reliable cash machine that is a big part of the foundation of Core Media Group (formerly CKX Inc., which acquired Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2005). Miles Davis and Johnny Cash are also among the most successful examples of hugely influential figures whose estates have carefully extended their commercial afterlife.
“It’s no coincidence that (these) artists … are all enjoying a stature, a visibility, a presence that is far greater than that of many of their contemporaries, and that is because they have very active, very engaged, very supportive and collaborative estates or representation,” says Adam Block, president of Sony Music’s catalog arm Legacy Recordings, which owns the seminal Davis and Cash catalogues. “When that exists, it brings more resources into the conversation. It makes for a much more effective effort, for both parties.”
Jampol got his start in the artistic reanimation business in 2003, when he joined the late Danny Sugerman in managing the career of the Doors, a role he maintains today. The band’s lead singer Jim Morrison died in 1970 at age 27 (which only added another layer to his legend) and the surviving members hadn’t recorded any new music since 1978. By creating a stream of new product that kept the act vital and in the public eye, the Doors team formed the template for JAM’s business plan.
“If you look at what they said, what they did, the art they created, then you can try to carry that message forward,” Jampol says. “You have to stay true to who they were. We have to hew absolutely to authenticity.”
JAM’s work on behalf of its acts takes a variety of forms, from merchandising to finding new ways to market old music. Last month, Concord Music Group’s Stax imprint released “Lonely and Blue,” a new Redding compilation that focuses on the soul singer’s ballad work.
This year should see the release of a new Doors project: a limited-edition box including CD and reel-to-reel tape renderings of a hitherto unheard 1966 live performance by the band at the London Fog on the Sunset Strip.
In partnership with Tom Whalley, who signed Shakur to Interscope, JAM has taken the reins of the Tupac archive, following his spectacular Coachella comeback with a holographic doppelganger. Sony’s Block says admiringly, “That was a great example of a brilliant creative exercise.”
Like Tupac, Hendrix’s work during his short life (he died in 1970 at age 27) was so influential that it has enjoyed remarkable longevity, thanks in large measure to the work of his family’s company, Experience Hendrix, which is distributed by Sony.
Just last month, a new Hendrix collection, “People, Hell & Angels,” entered the U.S. album chart at No. 2. It was the guitar god’s highest chart placement since “Electric Ladyland” reached No. 1 in 1968. (Another collection, “Valleys of Neptune,” hit No. 4 in 2010.)
Experience Hendrix, founded in 1994, is headed by Hendrix’s sister Janie. The company has kept the performer’s profile high nearly 43 years after his death with a stream of licensed products, including guitars and pedals, T-shirts, calendars, highend art, museum exhibitions and even an annual Experience Hendrix tour, featuring Band of Gypsys member Billy Cox and a host of name guitarists. Literally dozens of licensees employ the Hendrix brand.
“For us,” Janie Hendrix says, “it’s really about being handson and being on the inside and working on projects to make sure that they’re done in an authentically correct way. I think we’ve been able to continue that. … What we do for Jimi is definitely 24-7, and we’re constantly thinking of new ways to put him out there and have people hear his music.”
The music of jazz giant Davis, who died in 1991, has been subject to a host of repackagings and newly unearthed archival releases through Sony’s Legacy division. In January, the company issued the second volume of “The Bootleg Series,” a CD/DVD package of previously unreleased Davis performances.
But Davis’ nephew and onetime band mate Vince Wilburn Jr., who oversees the musician’s estate with Davis’ children Erin and Cheryl, hopes to keep the legend breathing with more projects like 2007’s “Evolution of the Groove,” a hip-hop-inflected remix project that included Carlos Santana among the particpants.
Says Wilburn: “I’m always thinking, ‘What would Miles do? What would my uncle do?’ He wouldn’t want to play “Human Nature” and “Time After Time” in 2013. He didn’t want to go back and listen to the quintet, his old material. Miles was progressive. Miles was a forward thinker.”
Rather, Wilburn says, the estate is looking to hook up with present-day acts that are relatable.
“We want to collaborate with the right guys and put out a collaboration with hip-hop artists,” he says. “We want to reach a vast audience, a younger demographic. All we want to do is make sure that it’s something the public has never heard, that it’s marketable, and that it reaches a wider demographic. That’s our mission.”
Johnny Cash also has never left the public eye since his 2003 death. “The Legend of Johnny Cash,” a 2005 Island Records compilation of his Columbia and American recordings, remains in the top 100 of the U.S. album chart and has sold nearly 2.9 million copies to date.
Like Davis, Cash has been the subject of a “Legacy Bootleg Series,” now in its fourth volume. The country legend’s son, John Carter Cash, who oversees the posthumous output, says that in addition to further unreleased studio material and live recordings, a stage play and a feature film based around Cash’s music are in the works. The younger Cash was an exec producer on 2005’s “Walk the Line,” which focused on his father’s early years.
Echoing Wilburn’s sentiments, Cash says: “What I always try to do, in all situations, is make the same decision that my father would have made. We want to keep the integrity in place. We don’t want to cheapen the image; we don’t want to exploit the brand.”
If there is common ground for those who work with the catalogs of long-dead artists, it is the acknowledgement that a marketing or licensing misstep can severely devalue an artist’s work, sometimes catastrophically.
“Around my company, we have a few mottos,” says Jampol. “One of them I call the Hippocratic Oath of Rock, which is ‘First, do no harm.’ I’ll say to my staff: ‘Listen, it’s 12:30 in the afternoon. By 5 o’clock today, you can completely ruin what it took Jim Morrison 45 years to do, so have a careful day.’ ”
Soundtrack Staples Keep Cash Flowing
Movie and TV soundtrack licensing is a bankable source of coin for the estates of music legends. The exposure also helps keep their tunes fresh in the public’s ear. Evergreen tracks like Tupac Shakur’s “California Love” have been used in practically all genres, including kidpics (“Marmaduke”), romantic comedies (“Valentine’s Day”) and action pics (“Battle: Los Angeles”).