How the Fallout From 'Neverland' Is Affecting the Jackson Estate's Business

ISSUE 7 2019 - COMMISSIONED FOR ONE TIME USE ONLY - DO NOT EVER REUSE
Illustration by Joan Wong
     

Three weeks after the premiere of Leaving Neverland, the effects of the disturbing documentary on the revenue streams that feed Michael Jackson’s estate do not appear to be as devastating as was predicted. The asking price for Neverland Ranch has dropped precipitously, and airplay of Jackson’s music is down, but he’s still getting more spins than Prince and Madonna, and his fans have not abandoned him: Sales and streams are up.

U.S. Sales and Streams: In 2018, Sony Music Entertainment extended a 2009 $250 million deal with the Jackson estate to distribute his recordings for seven more years. Although radio airplay is down for the second consecutive week, on-demand streams were up 8.8 percent, and sales 5.7 percent, during that same time period (the week ending March 14), according to Nielsen Music. Jim Urie, a former executive at Universal Music Group Distribution turned industry consultant, says SME has to move 25 million album-equivalent units in those seven years to recoup its investment. “That’s very doable,” says Urie, especially since, he contends, the albums Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad are scandal-proof. Jackson’s publishing catalog, Mijac, which the estate owns and Sony/ATV administers, could take a hit if sales and streaming trends reverse and movie, TV and ad synchs dry up. (Sony and the estate declined to comment.)

Tours: The media storm over Leaving Neverland initially boosted interest in Cirque du Soleil’s long-running ONE show in Las Vegas, according to ticket reseller Vivid Seats, which reported a 60 percent increase in online searches for the show on the day part one premiered. Ticketmaster searches also indicate that tickets are selling steadily through December. The estate has done well by Cirque du Soleil -- its Immortal tour generated over $370 million for Jackson’s heirs -- but launching or reviving a Jackson-themed show post-Neverland may be difficult, says Nashville promoter Brock Jones. “Those products have a toxicity that did not exist a month ago,” he says. “You have moved from a product that people can feel good about to a conversation of, ‘Am I going to see a show that’s going to be picketed? Is this a show I want to be associated with?’” Adds promoter John Scher: “Everybody you run into has an opinion [about Jackson], mostly negative. If that stands, the franchise has been tremendously devalued.” (A rep for Cirque du Soleil declined to comment.)

Merchandise: According to Forbes, Jackson’s merchandise company, Authentic Brands Group, “asserts” that none of its merch partners have halted any licensing deals, but on March 15, Louis Vuitton pulled Jackson-themed clothing from its fall/winter menswear collection, citing Neverland. “There’s nothing good that can come from this in a merchandise sense,” says Martin Brochstein, senior vp of the industry trade group International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association.

U.S. Radio: During the week ending March 14, the radio audience for Jackson’s music dropped 18 percent, from 76 million to 62.7 million listeners, and 21 percent the previous week, from 97 million listeners to 76 million, according to Nielsen Music. (For the four weeks prior to Neverland’s airing, Jackson’s audience averaged 94.5 million.) Despite the decline, Jackson still topped Prince and Madonna, who, respectively, attracted 64.5 million and 56 million average weekly listeners. If the trend continues, the decrease in publishing royalties could mean upward of $500,000 in annual losses stateside and another $800,000 internationally, estimates Erica Rosa, director of royalties at entertainment business management company FBMM.

Real Estate: Once on the market for $100 million, the 2,700-acre Neverland Ranch (since renamed Sycamore Valley Ranch) dropped to $31 million just days before Neverland aired. Jointly owned by the estate and investment firm Colony Capital, the site “is definitely a harder sell than before the movie,” says Jack Isquith, a New York real estate agent and former Warner Bros. Records executive. In light of the abuse that allegedly took place there, “you have something that’s very negative and very real,” he adds. (Colony declined to comment.)

Theater: Despite the cancellation of a Chicago tryout shortly before Neverland’s airdate, estate attorney Howard Weitzman says the musical Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough is still slated for a 2020 Broadway bow. Given the estate’s deep coffers, the risk may be worth it. While musicals can cost tens of millions to mount, successes earn big: According to data from The Broadway League, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical has grossed $248.6 million since its 2013 Great White Way debut.

This article originally appeared in the March 23 issue of Billboard.