Cashing in on Michael Jackson's Legacy

Whose lifestyle was more outlandish: Michael Jackson or Andy Warhol? For many of us it seems like a tossup. But Michael Stone believes Jackson has the edge—and Stone should know. For eight years, until recently, he served as a consultant to the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, helping them commercialize the art icon's legacy. Warhol, with his signature choppy white mane, was known for surrounding himself with "a menagerie of porn stars, drag queens, drug addicts, musicians and free-thinkers," according to Wikipedia. One of the most influential artists of his times, Warhol, called the "Pope of Pop," was "not the most conventional personality," says Stone. Yet Stone was able to help the Warhol Foundation, which controls the copyright to all of the artist's work, amass an endowment exceeding $240 million (proceeds go to supporting the arts) from licensing deals.

Thanks to Stone, Warhol, who died 22 years ago, lives on in Andy Warhol Union Square eau de parfum ($195 an ounce); Seiko Warhol watches ($35 to $300); as well as magnets, calendars, home furnishings, and handbags. He believes the lifestyle of the "King of Pop," a.k.a. Michael Jackson—with his physical transformation, his Neverland ranch, and his odd parenting theories—is more bizarre even than Warhol's. Yet Stone marvels at the prospects for commercializing Jackson's legacy. Stone, the top executive of Beanstalk, the branding subsidiary of global ad giant Omnicom, has represented Mohammed Ali and currently advises, among others, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. He talked to NEWSWEEK's Johnnie L. Roberts about whether he thinks Michael Jackson's legacy will be exploited like Elvis Presley's or guarded like John Lennon's.

How did you get involved with the Warhol Foundation?
For many years, we represented Coca-Cola Co. And there came an opportunity to seek out rights to use the Andy Warhol artwork of the Coke can and bottle. In that instance, Coca-Cola owns the copyrights to the Coca-Cola trademark, and Andy Warhol owned the rights to the artwork itself. Neither side could exploit the artwork without the consent of the other. So we sought out the rights from the foundation, and that's how we were introduced to the Andy Warhol Foundation. Subsequently, they hired us to develop licensing programs—the rights to use his work, signature and things like that.

Tell me about the strategy that you helped devise.
It basically was to leverage the archives and to develop products that would be targeted more at an upscale channel of distribution. So products you would find in department stores, for example, not mass merchants. And the concept was to focus on certain categories like products for the home, apparel, accessories, health and beauty products, accessories like watches and jewelry, things like that. And it's basically a worldwide strategy—40 licensees in over 55 countries. One licensee could be making 10, 20, 30 different products. We, for example, recommended Robert Lee Morris as the jewelry licensee. There are many, many pieces of jewelry in the Andy Warhol Collection at Robert Lee Morris.

How does the Warhol experience relate to what we will see unfolding with Michael Jackson? What's your sense of the scale of the commercialization in his case?
As a branding specialist, it's the most fascinating thing to see unfold. The first thing that has to be determined is, who owns what? And who's controlling what? Because right now you've got counterfeiters all over the place. Nobody can really stop it because nobody is in control of the rights right now. I don't know if that will be easy to get through, or whether there will be a lot of fighting about it to determine who owns what rights. That was not an issue in Warhol's case. That will be a major issue in the Michael Jackson case.

How difficult and how long might it take to settle that matter?
It could be resolved quickly. Or it could takes years. It's not just one set of rights. There are music rights. There are album-cover rights. There are television rights. There are rights to his name, likeness, image, and signature. There are so many different rights floating around. Then whoever controls the rights will have to decide how they want to commercialize Michael Jackson.

So give me some idea about the scope of possibilities for turning his legacy into income.
The spectrum begins at Elvis Presley on one end, where people are barely listening to his music anymore, and his legacy is basically the theme park, Graceland, in Memphis; a whole bunch of impersonators in clubs across America; and a slew of merchandise, from T shirts to belt buckles to baseball hats. On the other extreme, there's another revolutionary musician, John Lennon, whose image and legacy has been protected by his estate, and who is known for his music and his ideals, with very little other commercialization being done against that image. So those are the two ends of the spectrum, and I'm beginning to get a feeling about where Michael Jackson is going to fall. Quite honestly, even though I'm a licensing guy, it's a shame.

Elaborate.
I think he will be overexploited. Time will tell. Right now, it's a frenzy. But once the news dies down, and he's not on the cover of every magazine and on every news program—and it will die down—then the question will be, what's the strategy here? And they have so much opportunity. There's so much music available, both that has been published and, apparently, unpublished. They can do a theatrical release. They can do a museum. They can do DVDs. They can do a television show. There are so many elegant things that they can do with Michael Jackson, who has an incredible body of music. And was a revolutionary, really, in the music industry. The questions is, do they go the Elvis Presley route, and you'll be able to walk into your corner five-and-dime store and buy your Michael Jackson glove.

What makes you think he will be exploited in the worst sense of the word?
First of all, there's the financial quagmire. You can read as much as you want about Michael Jackson. And you can't get any clarity on whether the estate is going to have a lot of money or going to be in debt. The numbers are all over the place—that he's a half billion dollars in debt and that the estate is worth half a billion dollars. There's the Beatles library. It's going to take them years to figure out whether they have money or whether they don't have money. So the question becomes, are they going to be just so focused on the revenue-generating opportunities of Michael Jackson? Do they go the exploitation route—commemorative coins and plates and replica gloves and jackets with epaulets on them, and all of that. There's the potential here for this to become an Elvis Presley kind of strategy.

What would you do?
The body of music is enough to preserve the legacy of Michael Jackson. Don't forget, he's got a pretty mixed reputation. Two weeks ago, remember, his Q [popularity] scores were extremely low because of all the weirdness about his life. Now his Q scores are through the roof because there's a lot of sympathy, and people are focusing on the music. But that will die down. There's a mixed reputation out there for him. So, hopefully, the future and those in control will focus on his incredible musical legacy and leave it at that.

It appears that—for now, anyway—the high-profile entertainment lawyer John Branca and music executive John McClain have emerged as the bona fide executors of Jackson's estate. Do you know them?
I don't know either of them. I don't know anything about them. My suspicion is that neither of them really knows anything about building a strategy to build a Michael Jackson brand and create a legacy for Michael Jackson. Music, they probably know. So I assume they know how to commercialize and exploit and sustain the incredible body of work that Michael Jackson compiled over his lifetime.

What's the prospect for Neverland becoming the next Graceland?
I've seen some people say absolutely. It's going to be bigger than Graceland because it's in Los Angeles and it's easier to get to. Los Angeles is already a tourist destination. I've seen other people say, wait a second, he abandoned the place four years ago. It was the scene of child-molestation charges [of which Jackson was acquitted in a trial], and we don't think that people are going to be that interested in seeing it. So who knows? If it turns into a destination, my bet is there's going to be a souvenir shop at Neverland. And there are going to be belt buckles and refrigerator magnets. If they open up Neverland as a museum, they will probably not going to be able to get away from that. The question is how far would they want to take that outside of the Neverland Museum.

What advice—two or three things—would you offer? Or will you charge me for that?
Well, I do charge for it. But since you're a lowly reporter ... The advice I would have is, don't rush into anything. Don't think that the frenzy that's going on now is the way to take advantage of his legacy. There's plenty of time. Obviously, understand the rights first. Understand what the music strategy is going to be. Then put together the Michael Jackson brand strategy, which has various components to it. It could include product, but you've got to be very careful on the product side that you are not tarnishing the image. This is a tarnished image already because of the life that he led, and the accusations made against him, true or false. I would recommend not tarnishing it further by allowing a bunch of commemorative products to get released into the marketplace.

You represent living celebrities and, in the case of Warhol, dead celebrities. What are the challenges in representing the later?
If someone comes up with the idea that there can be a fashion line of Michael Jackson apparel, quite honestly, they'd be smoking something. It's hard enough for a celebrity to launch an apparel collection, but at least the consumers have this belief that the celebrity actually had something to do with the look, feel, and design of the apparel—that the apparel reflects that celebrity's own taste. The consumer can aspire to be like that celebrity. It's pretty hard to do that with a deceased celebrity. Fashion apparel for deceased celebrities have rarely worked. In Japan, there's James Dean jeans, I think, or something like that. But the Japanese market is a little bit odd. In the United States, fashion apparel based on deceased celebrities has no reason for being.

What of the people out there buying Michael Jackson stuff—albums and the like, for example—from each other on Web sites?
I understand there's stuff being sold on eBay now that's going for a ton of money. People are buying things, thinking they are making an investment. They're not. Once the frenzy passes, all of the albums that you have in your basement, the Michael Jackson albums, they'll all go back to being $10.

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