Just two weeks after the death of Michael Jackson, Randy Phillips, CEO of AEG Live, producers of what were to be Jackson’s 50 sellouts at the O2 Arena in London, still has not caught his breath. Among the most recent developments for Phillips, AEG Live and parent AEG, was the successful planning and execution of Jackson’s memorial at the AEG-operated Staples Center in L.A. on Tuesday.
“To me, the success of [the memorial] is measured by the fact that I think we were able to really humanize my friend and erase those caricatures that the press had created of him. If there is one thing I could point to it as to why it was successful, it would be that.”
Phillips noted that the event was “one of the largest broadcasts ever in the history of the world, right up there with Princess Diana’s funeral, maybe even bigger because of the Web now.” According to Nielsen Media Research, the memorial service for Jackson on Tuesday totaled a combined 20.5 household rating with 30.92 million viewers in the U.S. on the 19 networks carrying it from approximately 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
In offering a free media feed from the event to the world and refusing to sell merchandise at the event, AEG declined to monetize the memorial, despite the huge losses they have incurred following Jackson’s death. “This was a memorial service,” Phillips said. “In fact, it was really a funeral, because the casket and the body were there. We took the high road. I’m not saying this because I drank the AEG Kool-Aid, but that’s the only way this company knows how to work.”
That’s not to say Phillips and AEG have not taken their shots in the wake of Jackson’s death, from giving fans the option to keep their tickets to This Is It (with no refund) to selling merchandise on the This Is It website. “One thing I’ve learned in taking this job is you can’t please everybody,” Phillips says. “There will always be critics and skeptics and all that, but we did the right thing for my buddy. We buried him with dignity.”
The memorial featured moving and sometimes magnificent performances by such artists as Usher, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Hudson and Lionel Richie. While AEG owns this intellectual property, Phillips says there are no immediate plans to offer content, digital or otherwise, from the memorial.
“First of all, we didn’t know what it was going to be, how well it was going to come out,” Phillips says. “There may be [some sort of release], but we really haven’t thought about that. We’d have to go back to the speakers and the artists and get their permission.”
Even if there were video or audio released from the memorial, “we wouldn’t do anything without the estate,” says Phillips. “Michael was our partner in life, he’s our partner in death through his estate.”
Next up could be a Jackson tribute concert at the O2 utilizing the massive production put together for This Is It. “We’re just starting to get into that now, to figure out how to unveil all the stuff we have to the world,” says Phillips. “I think at some point we’ll show Michael’s last masterpiece, This Is It, to the world.”
Regarding refunds, Phillips says AEG is currently seeing a retention rate of about 25% in an offer that runs through Aug. 14. He says 40% retention would allow AEG to recoup its expenses. What ticket retention doesn’t make up, intellectual property should cover costs that AEG has put at about $25 million and others have tagged as high as double that. “I can only tell you how much we spent,” says Phillips. “I don’t know what we lost yet, it’s too early.”
This Is It intellectual property, including Jackson’s “mini-movies” produced for the shows, is “all locked up at the Staples Center in the vault,” Phillips says. “The production, staging and all that is in warehouses under lock and key. And the dancers and everyone else want to do the show for the world one time, so we kind of have them on hold, but we don’t have anything confirmed yet.”
Speculation has been that the tribute show might be staged on what would have been Jackson’s 51st birthday Aug. 29. “That would be the ideal time, but we’re not sure we can get it together in time,” Phillips says.
Regarding the MJ This Is It merchandise, Phillips says it is selling “big time” on the Web site and will be offered at retail at some point. “I have a book of 300-plus of the most amazing items Michael designed with Bravado that are just spectacular, the best merch I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says.