The Business of Bob Marley: Billboard Cover Story
In late 1979, a mustachioed "60 Minutes" correspondent named George Negus asked Bob Marley if he was a rich man.
"When you say 'rich,' what you mean?" the reggae superstar replied with a poker face.
Do you have a lot of possessions? Lots of money in the bank?
"Possessions make you rich?" Marley asked skeptically. "I don't have that type of richness. My richness is life, forever."
Though he would succumb to cancer two years later, Marley's words still ring true. The Rasta soul rebel's songs of freedom are more relevant than ever three decades after his death at age 36. "Bob Marley's in every new day," his widow, Rita Marley, says by telephone from her home in Ghana, where she's sponsoring the Africa Unite Youth Symposium at the Institute of African Studies to mark what would have been his 66th birthday on Feb. 6. "There's not one day that his music is not played all over the world."
"Legend," Bob Marley & the Wailers' greatest-hits collection, is the top-selling reggae album of all time, having spent more than 1,126 weeks on the Billboard 200 and Pop Catalog Albums charts. As the first Third World pop star, Marley's fan base is truly global. Revered from Argentina to New Zealand, he's easily the most widely pirated musician on Earth. "I bought a bootleg CD yesterday in Ghana," Rita Marley says with a laugh. "They're on the streets like peanuts. I can't tell you the last time I heard some of these songs, but this guy had 25 songs on one CD. Yes, honey, and they're selling well. That's how they make their living."
"Old pirates yes they rob I," Marley sang in his classic "Redemption Song." And as his son Rohan puts it, "Those pirates are still out there, claiming they have rights." But the former linebacker, known for delivering punishing hits while playing for the University of Miami and the Canadian Football League's Ottawa Rough Riders, has been helping his family tackle piracy.
Though some estimate that the trade in unauthorized Marley music and merchandise exceeds $600 million each year, attorney Tim Ervin deals with the hard numbers: "Given the efforts that the family employs, I don't believe the problem is nearly that extensive," says Ervin, who has represented the Marleys since 2000. (His firm also does intellectual property protection for the estates of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.) Though he doesn't work on Marley music, downloads or DVD rights, on the merchandising side, the family has been vigilant in protecting Marley's legacy. "The Marleys have served over 400 cease-and-desist letters in the past 11 years," he says. "We've initiated 30 lawsuits in the United States alone."
Two weeks ago team Marley won a major victory when a Las Vegas court ruled that Avela, a Reno, Nev.-based company that sold unauthorized Bob Marley merchandise to retailers like Target and Walmart, must pay the singer's estate at least $300,000 in damages. "They were selling all sorts of products," Ervin says. The most offensive of which were Bob Marley bobblehead dolls and plush toys, he says. "That really incensed my client."
The case was filed in 2008 by Marley family company Zion Rootswear, which owns the exclusive worldwide license to make Bob Marley clothing. In addition to the $300,000 in damages awarded under Nevada state law, there's also a federal claim that was scheduled to be heard on Feb. 4 in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas. "We have submitted evidence that the company had $3 million in sales," Ervin says. "Based on the fact that the jury found that they willfully infringed, the judge has the power to double or triple that figure, and award us our attorney's fees on top."
"This verdict sends a clear message to anyone who would challenge the integrity of our father's legacy," Rohan said in a written statement. "We will continue to aggressively pursue legal actions against those who attempt to unfairly profit from his life and legacy."
Rita and Bob's firstborn child, Cedella, who has long served as CEO of Tuff Gong International and director of the Bob Marley Foundation, as well as overseeing most of the Marley family businesses, has been fighting for her rights as long as she can remember. "The best part about the Nevada case‹apart from winning it," she says, "was that our lawyer made people realize that we had to put up money to buy these rights, that normally a child would have."
"Dad passed without a will," says Cedella, who was 14 at the time. Under Jamaican law, her father's estate was to be sold and divided among his wife and 12 children. During the Las Vegas court proceedings, Marley's attorney said the singer's family paid $11 million to buy the rights to his identity.
"We borrowed the money, we paid it back, and it was ours for life," Cedella says. "That is part of the reason why we defend it so much. It was not something that was given to us."
"It's a big responsibility we have, running the business," says Rita, who notes that past partners and administrators tried to "mash up a company that's been formulated and worked for by a Rastaman . . . The expectation is that we're only good for ganja-smoking."
The family has enlisted some powerful allies in their quest to take control of Marley's legacy and raise his name to new heights. In late 2008, Canadian venture capitalist James Salter invested millions to become co-administrator of the Bob Marley estate's trademarks and right of publicity. Salter's company, Authentic Brands recently acquired the rights to Marilyn Monroe's estate as well.
Since the endorsement value of living celebrities can fluctuate as quickly as TMZ can post a scandalous story -- just ask Chris Brown, Lindsay Lohan or Tiger Woods -- the marketing of deceased superstars has become a multibillion-dollar business. Michael Jackson's estate earned $275 million last year, but while the King of Pop topped Forbes magazine's annual list of "Top-Earning Dead Celebrities" in 2010 the King of Reggae hasn't dented the list since 2007 (with estimated earnings of just $4 million). But Salter is betting that all that is about to change.
"I don't have any reason to believe that the Marley estate was mismanaged," says Jonathan Faber, CEO of the Luminary Group, which represents the estates of sports legends like Babe Ruth and Vince Lombardi. "They probably were not maximizing their opportunities, but they've now entered into a transaction where they can do that."
Earlier this month the Marley family announced the launch of the House of Marley, a joint venture with Alon Kaufman, CEO of Detroit-based Homedics, which also owns high-end retail brand the Sharper Image. At last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the House of Marley debuted an eco-conscious home audio line including earbuds, headphones and iPod docking stations with speakers mounted on natural wood or tucked into canvas bags. (Expected to be available at retail by late second quarter, the products can be preordered at TheHouseOfMarley.com.)
The House of Marley's biggest buzz item is the pro-quality Trenchtown Rock headphones that retail for $299, a price point that mounts a direct challenge to the Beats by Dr. Dre line, which reportedly earned the legendary hip-hop producer $16 million last year. Handsomely designed and sturdily constructed with recyclable materials like aluminum and leather rather than plastic, these top-of-the-line Marley headphones boast a heavy bass sound that's ideal for reggae.
"With Marley the bass is what penetrates; it goes into your body," Kaufman says. "That's one of our core principles‹that you really have to feel us. In order to feel us, we have to deliver that sound quality." The House of Marley observes other principles as well, what Cedella calls "the Marley code."
"This is something we know our father would be proud of," Rohan says. "It's not just about being businessmen but being followers of a principle and a philosophy. The greatest part is that we are giving back." A portion of all proceeds from the House of Marley will go to support the nonprofit 1Love.org, an online social community that aims to turn Marley's 19-million-plus Facebook fans into a global movement.
"The whole Marley family is very socially conscious," 1Love.org executive director Donna Mastropasqua says. "One of the challenges that they have had is how to give the amount of time and energy and resources to all the things that they want to support. But by making use of the Internet, we've really hit an emotional chord. People are so passionate about Bob Marley and everything that he stood for. And the fact that we're providing an outlet and a place for them to go is just huge."
"We didn't just create a charity," Rohan adds. "We created an affinity program to partner up with other charities." Among the organizations supported by 1Love.org are the African Leadership Academy, the United Nations Environmental Program and Charity Water, which provides safe drinking water all over the world by drilling wells at a cost of $5,000 each. Going forward the House of Marley plans to expand into timepieces, luggage and sportswear.
But music remains the cornerstone of the Marley legacy, as well as the subject of ongoing legal conflict. Earlier this month in United States District Court in New York, attorneys for the Marley family attended a pretrial hearing in their lawsuit against Universal Music Group (UMG), which gained control of Island Records when Seagram acquired PolyGram in 1998 (and was later acquired by Vivendi). Although a judge denied the family's claim to the copyrights for five of Bob Marley & the Wailers' best-known albums last September, the Marleys have since hired new legal counsel to continue their battle, which has now shifted from a copyright dispute to an accounting dispute.
"By filing this lawsuit the Marleys are standing up for their rights and for the rights of other artists who deal with multinational corporations," L.A. entertainment attorney Bonnie Eskenazi says. "They won't be bullied or coerced into taking less than what the contracts entitle them to receive."
The jury trial for this portion of the complaint is scheduled to begin on March 7. The Marley estate is seeking some $6 million, charging that UMG improperly withheld royalty payments and failed to abide by the terms of Marley's 1992 agreement with Island Records/PolyGram, which, according to Eskenazi, stipulates a 60% gross royalty rate on all digital sales. The Marley family's attorney says that Island founder Chris Blackwell is prepared to take the stand and confirm these contract points. Reps for Universal were unavailable to comment on the litigation.
Rita Marley will never forget Sept. 23, 1980 -- it was the last time her husband stepped onstage to perform. "That was the same time the doctors told Bob he's got cancer and he's not going to be living much longer," she recalls.
Just after opening for -- and reportedly upstaging -- Lionel Richie and the Commodores at Madison Square Garden in New York, Marley collapsed while jogging in Central Park. "I said, 'OK, the tour will just have to be canceled,' " Rita remembers. " 'Because if you're sick, you can't do this.' And he said, 'I'm gonna do it.' He was that determined."
"Live Forever," a live double-album of that final historic performance at Pittsburgh's Stanley Theater, was released Feb. 1 in digital and CD formats, as well as a super deluxe edition containing three vinyl LPs, two CDs and a commemorative booklet. Aside from bootlegs, this concert has never been heard before. Rita calls the show one of Marley's greatest: "Even though all his concerts were the best, this one was exceptional." Concerned about her husband's health, she questioned the wisdom of going on with the show that day. "Why are you still doing a concert?" she asked him. "If it's about money, we don't need the money that bad." Rita remembers Bob's reply: "This is not about money; this is about the mission." The mission will be commemorated this May, on the 30th anniversary of his death at L.A.'s Grammy Museum with an exhibition of photography, artifacts and multimedia.
The last song Marley performed on any stage was "Get Up Stand Up," a rallying cry imploring listeners to "stand up for your rights." His family has taken that lesson to heart, acting as ambassadors for the House of Marley and walking the line between doing well and doing good.
Cedella Marley Design recently announced a partnership with Puma -- Cedella will create 2012 Olympic wear for three-time gold-medalist Usain Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican National Track & Field team. Rohan Marley now runs an organic coffee farm in Jamaica and founded Marley Coffee, which is sold in stores like Whole Foods and Dean & DeLuca. He also works with the Marley Beverage Company, which distributes Marley's Mellow Mood, a line of carbonated relaxation drinks and herbal teas. Robbie Marley Jr. does graphic design for Zion Rootswear, while Sharon Marley helps run the Marley Resort & Spa in the Bahamas, which the Marleys discovered in 1976, while Bob was there recovering from a 1976 assassination attempt in Kingston, Jamaica.
No matter how much money these businesses raise for charity, Marley's heirs will always face the same sort of questions their father once did from "60 Minutes," which reported that "the ganja heads have become business heads." The Rasta revolutionary from the slums of Trenchtown liked to joke that he drove a BMW because the name stood for Bob Marley & the Wailers. But he never turned his back on the streets that raised him, dispensing a small fortune in handouts and risking his life to tamp down the political violence that still rages to this day. "I'm like Che Guevara with bling on," Jay-Z once rhymed. "I'm complex." Marley could probably relate to the mogul who rose from Brooklyn's Marcy Projects, and the unique struggles that went with it.
"The Marleys face the same challenges as any of these deceased iconic clients," the Luminary Group's Faber says. "The first part is responding to unauthorized uses. The second is keeping the celebrity relevant in the minds of consumers." Given Marley's enduring popularity, that part shouldn't be a problem, but the third challenge is a bit trickier: "It's a matter of choosing your partners carefully and exercising quality control over the brand, and not oversaturating the market," Faber says. "It's a balancing act. They have to understand what it is that Bob Marley means to the consumer, and to the extent that they can, try not to alienate his fans."
Rohan seems confident of the way forward. "We have to know the integrity of what we're doing," he says, shrugging off those who may be uncomfortable with the commercialization of brand Marley. "We were never the ones to really worry about critics. Like our father would say, he writes music about them. They're really like crickets‹in the bushes. We don't worry about those guys, we just do what we do. 'Cause if we worry about them, we wouldn't do anything. We'd just be stagnant. We can't do that."
"They say the good you do lives after you," Rita Marley says. "Bob is one of those who proves that. Can you imagine he went to rest at the age of 36, and 30 years after he's still coming out with music for your listening pleasure? Not only for your dancing pleasure, but for learning at the same time. Because Bob Marley music teaches. Bob said, 'Music gonna teach them one lesson.' "