When Michael Jackson bought ATV Music — home to the Beatles catalog — in 1985 and partnered with Sony Music Publishing to establish Sony/ATV in 1995, those strategic moves were stepping stones toward fulfilling Jackson’s long-held dream.
“Michael’s dream was to create the biggest publisher in the world,” says entertainment attorney John Branca. He negotiated the aforementioned deals and other publishing acquisitions on behalf of his client before Jackson’s untimely death in 2009. In addition to serving as co-executor of the Michael Jackson Estate with John McClain, Branca is partner and head of the music division at entertainment law firm Ziffren Brittenham LLP.
Speaking to Billboard on the occasion of Sony/ATV’s rebranding as Sony Music Publishing in tandem with the company’s silver anniversary celebration, Branca says, “Michael is the person who was single-handedly most responsible for the growth of Sony/ATV. That’s not to take anything away from [former chairman/CEO] Martin Bandier, who was very influential and instrumental in growing the company, or present chairman/CEO Jon Platt, with whom the company is in great hands. But it really started with Michael.”
When did you first become aware of Jackson’s interest in publishing?
Michael and I started working together in 1980. He was an innovator like Sam Cooke. When he hired me, he didn’t own his masters at the time. But Thriller gave him the leverage and the platform for me to go to Sony and get him ownership of his masters. That was very important to him.
Right after Thriller came out , Michael said he wanted to buy copyrights. We bought the Sly and the Family Stone catalog and bought more wonderful copyrights later like “When a Man Loves a Woman,” McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” and Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Then when Michael bought ATV in 1985, that was part one of his dream to create the biggest publishing company in the world. Then the merger with Sony in 1995 was the next step in the process. Michael was also on Sony/ATV’s board of directors, so he remained active in helping to build the company as it continued to buy important publishing catalogs.
Along the way, I represented Leiber and Stoller when they sold their catalog to Sony/ATV and also represented [Motown founder] Berry Gordy in selling the Jobete song catalog to EMI Music Publishing. After Michael’s unfortunate passing [in 2009], we were able to help [then Sony/ATV chairman/CEO] Marty Bandier and [chief financial officer] Rob Wiesenthal buy EMI to create the biggest publisher in the world. When we did that, it was kind of a nod to Michael because that was his dream. He was always focused on that.
What was Jackson’s thought process in determining which catalogs and copyrights to acquire?
He appreciated great songs and great songwriting and in his mind the Beatles were the greatest. So when the Beatles catalog came up, my God, he couldn’t rest. It took almost a year to finish that deal and get that catalog, but I can’t tell you how excited he was.
Many people probably don’t realize how astute Jackson was in his publishing acquisitions, including songs like the popular-again anthem “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” What other songs would people be surprised to learn are part of his Mijac Music portfolio?
“People Get Ready” by the Impressions is another great anthem that’s under Mijac. Also Aretha Franklin’s “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” “For the Love of Money” and “Love Train” by the O’Jays and songs by Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. Mijac Music remains an independent publishing company administered by Sony Music Publishing and owned by the Jackson Estate.
Is there another special memory that comes to mind when you look back at Jackson’s publishing pursuits?
I remember mentioning to him that growing up, I’d been a fan of Dion and the Belmonts and noted that Dion’s “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” were for sale. Michael said, “I don’t know those songs; send them over.” Michael would always spend Sundays dancing, so on Monday morning, he called me up: “Branca, Branca. I love the songs! We’ve got to get them. I danced all day to ‘Runaround Sue.’’’ Michael was passionate beyond belief.