How to Build Aretha Franklin's Potentially 'Billion Dollar Legacy' with Respect Befitting the Queen of Soul

Franklin's reported lack of a will could slow the process of introducing her to the next generation

Aretha Franklin’s legacy extends far beyond her unparalleled voice and her vast catalog.

Jampol Artist Management’s Jeff Jampol, whose company handles the estates of such clients as Otis Redding, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, estimates that Franklin’s legacy could eventually be worth close to $1 billion. 

“It’s could be built to be nine figures if done correctly over time,” he tells Billboard, basing his estimation on “the recordings, the publishing, the good will, the name and likeness and her value around the world.”

Franklin, who owned several of her master recordings and ran her own publishing companies, left no will or trust, according to reports. That could complicate matters since a court will now have to determine Franklin’s heirs, “who may or may not agree, or have the same respect for the legacy [or may] honor money over art and legacy,” Jampol says. 

Additionally, until a court determines the heirs, an intestate body of work “must be administrated at the pleasure of the court,” Jampol says, “And I've met very few probate judges who have keen insight into pop culture legacies.” Franklin’s four sons have filed papers in Michigan’s Oakland County Probate Court as interested parties in her estate, according to USA Today. Franklin’s attorney, Don Wilson, did not respond to Billboard’s request for comment.

Once the heirs and executors are established, Jampol says it is essential that they surround themselves with a team that understands legacy artists. The business of any artist changes radically after his or her death, he says. For most living artists, the main, if not exclusive, focus is on touring, tour merchandise and airplay. “The second [the artist] ceases being active, their entire business changes and the team they presently have in place is probably not the right team to carry them forward because it’s a completely different set of tasks,” he says. 

Jampol advises that the team should not rush to capitalize on Franklin’s death. “I don’t think there’s anything that needs to be done immediately.  You have to handle these things respectively. There are two ways to approach it: the way I see most approach it is they’re almost like vultures circling around this body looking for little islands of pink flesh they pluck off and feed the machine. I like to take the opposite approach: Take the body, reanimate it and keep it in the pop culture conversation in a way that’s credible and meaningful.” 

The key to building a lasting legacy is bringing new fans—many of whom may not have been born when Franklin was at her peak— into the fold, as the estates of Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson have done. That means finding what about Franklin appeals to a younger generation. “You figure out what that magic is and what Aretha means and stands for and you carve credible bridges to 11-to-40 year olds,” he says. “Pat Boone had a lot more gold records and hit singles than Jim Morrison ever did, so why are 12-year olds not discovering Pat Boone instead of Jim Morrison? It’s not just about the music.”

With Franklin, as immense as the talent was, there is also tremendous story to work with. “Here’s a woman who came from the world of the New Bethel Baptist Church and was a gospel singer and then broke through in the pop culture idiom, combining with and opening up doors,” Jampol says. “She was a black leader at a time when we were living under Jim Crow law in may parts of the country and certainly prior to the Civil Rights Act. She was someone who stood up for herself. Her performances were unbelievable. She is one of the greatest singers of all time and I think she became an icon of hope and of courage for a lot of women who followed her musically and non-musically.”

For this new audience, everything about Franklin is ripe for exposure. “I don’t care what a 62-year-old thinks about [a Franklin] documentary or a shirt design,” Jampol says. “I care what a 15-year-old plumber’s daughter in Dayton, Ohio thinks… The existing fans are a gift. If you are true to the story about what really happened without whitewashing and spinning it, you will get the existing fans. The job is to market to the [younger] audience.” 

That’s where whomever works on Franklin’s estate will likely need to push against prevailing business practices. “Virtually all of Franklin’s vendors and partners, be they the record company, publishing company, apparel manufacturing, whomever they are, they’re going to be 100 percent focused on Aretha’s existing fan base and capture the low hanging fruit of the people that love Aretha,” Jampol says.

Such action is done at the peril of the legacy. “The existing fan base is great [but] they’re tiny compared to the number of potential new fans out there,” Jampol says. “They’re shrinking through natural attrition and they’ve gone to the concert and they already have the t-shirt.” 

Presenting Franklin in a way that captures her “magic” to new generations provides endless opportunities for decades, Jampol says. “I gotta think that there’s an 18-year-old going to a festival that would love to have a Queen of Soul t-shirt on…Her appeal will be tremendous and broad if presented the right way.”