Michael Jackson made a few brilliant business decisions in his life and a lot of cruddy ones. But probably his most effective move of all — from a financial sense, anyway — was to die of a drug overdose at age 50 on June 25, 2009.
Before then, Jackson's finances were a floundering mess of debt, high spending and very little musical work to turn things around, according to Zack O'Malley Greenburg's new book, "Michael Jackson, Inc.: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire."
Since then, without the often uncomfortable reality of Michael Jackson around to get in the way of his own legend, the ship has been righted and is operating at full sail.
Two Jackson-themed Cirque du Soleil shows, one traveling, one based in Las Vegas, are among the highest earners in live performance today. "Michael Jackson's This Is It," a performance film culled mostly from rehearsal footage for his planned comeback concert tour, has done more than $250 million in gross receipts. And Sony signed a fresh record deal with the singer's estate for that same amount, planning to issue unreleased material and anniversary editions of existing records.
Where Jackson was earning less than $30 million annually in the seven unproductive years prior to his death, Jackson's estate has pulled in at least $117 million in every full year since his death and as much as $262 million in 2010, according to calculations made by Greenburg, a senior editor at Forbes.
Jackson is, Greenburg writes, "an artist powerful enough to earn more than $700 million from beyond the grave — more than any living solo act over the past five years."
His artistic power is one way to look at it. Another is to chalk it up to the miraculous restorative powers of death. Once we started missing Michael Jackson, we were willing, it seemed, to set aside all those years marred by child-abuse allegations and a public perception of Jackson as the freakish prisoner of his own, ever tighter and lighter skin.
The singer even got a Pepsi deal, postmortem, a shocking change. In his early years, he was an endorsement pioneer, but no company would touch him in the last decade-plus of his life.
Greenburg details all of Jackson's tabloid woes, even making the case that he brought some of them on himself in misguided attempts to replicate the no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity ethos of circus impresario P.T. Barnum, a man Jackson studied. (Remember the story about him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber? That was a Jackson plant, this book says.)
Writing as an investigator on the hunt for details, often taking readers along on interviews, the author has talked to close Jackson associates and celebrities aplenty: former backup singer Sheryl Crow, acolytes 50 Cent and Ludacris, Joe Jackson, members of Michael Jackson's inner business circle, and assorted record moguls.
Such pop-culture details make the book more readable than the average tale of accumulated wealth. But although written for lay audiences, this is foremost a business book, with Jackson's finances serving as the throughline. This focus helps the author find a fresh take on one of the most discussed human beings of our era.
But the writer sets himself a harder task with Jackson than he did in looking at Jay Z for a previous business-themed biography. Greenburg has to prove the fiscal savvy of a man who, to cite one late-life example, dropped more than $6 million on antiques in Las Vegas at the same time that he was living off of huge loans and had less than $700,000 cash.
For the first half of the book, though, the case is strong. Greenburg, who himself was a child star (in the film "Lorenzo's Oil"), details a young Michael Jackson whose talent, shepherded by his cruelly ambitious father, Joe, propelled the family out of its working-class roots in Gary, Ind.
Jackson was not content just to be the lead singer, the cute face of a brother act under Joe's control. Berry Gordy Jr., the Motown Records head, tells Greenburg about the young Jackson asking question after question about the music business, but also just staring at him, seeming to want to take in by osmosis the essence of Gordy's success.
As Jackson began to craft a solo career, he studied the greats across many disciplines. The author's reporting turned up a telling doodle Jackson made during a business meeting. It said, "Chaplin Michelangelo Disney."
He broke free of his father's control to sign his own record deal. Jackson surrounded himself, at least for the first period of his adult career, with talented business and musical people (the yes-men would come in later). He insisted, contractually, on being called the "King of Pop." That was no mere nickname. It was a business move.
Leveraging his market power to make endorsement deals, boost his record earnings and pioneer music videos (while he, essentially, integrated early MTV), the singer "fundamentally changed the formula for monetizing fame forever," writes Greenburg.
But Jackson's best business maneuver was in 1985, when he bought the publishing rights to the Beatles' most popular songs. Trusting his gut more than his advisers, Jackson paid $47.5 million for a catalog that (a) is worth an estimated $1 billion today and (b) he was able to borrow against to keep himself afloat even after his income began shrinking.
During the downfall years, whatever business acumen the singer had seemed to disappear. He spent beyond his means. Jackson was never convicted of child molestation, but by inviting boys to his Neverland Ranch for sleepovers, he, at minimum, made himself vulnerable to the accusations.
But worst of all, the singer seemed unable, in the end, to do the work that had brought him to such popular peaks. Only impending financial disaster led him to agree to the comeback tour he was rehearsing for at the time of his death.
And that's when the money started rolling in again. Jackson isn't around to enjoy any of it, of course, or to contribute fresh songs or live performances. But Greenburg makes a pretty compelling case, between the lines, that Jackson wasn't enjoying much of his life by then, anyway.
Steve Johnson is a Tribune features reporter.
"Michael Jackson, Inc."
By Zack O'Malley Greenburg, Atria, 295 pages, $26