Musicians all die, the great as well as the not so great, but their estates live on forever. And, for some heirs, lawyers and corporations, that’s where the real money is…and where the real problems begin. The squabbles over the estates of Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Prince in recent years were not lost on music journalist Eamonn Forde. Rather than go down those familiar paths, Forde widen the lens to the entire subject of music estates in his new book Leaving the Building. He reexamines such big fish as Hendrix and Bowie, but he finds more revealing stories about quieter figures like Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, Poly Styrene, Eva Cassidy, Ian Dury. Fiona McQuarrie spoke with Forde about his book and his journey through the musical vaults
When a musical artist passes away, the legacy they leave behind can be artistically important and also, potentially, very profitable. But that can result in intense and bitter disputes over who should be in charge of that legacy, and how it should be preserved. However, neither the music press nor the business press pays much attention to how musicians’ estates are run. Journalist Eamonn Forde decided to dig deeper into this largely unexplored topic, and his new book Leaving the Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates (Omnibus Press) looks at just about everything that can possibly be done with the work an artist leaves behind, from re-releases to holograms to licensed products, and how estates are structured and managed.
Fiona McQuarrie spoke to Forde for PKM.
PKM: What got you interested in this topic and made you want to write a book about it?
Eamonn Forde: Every year Forbes magazine does their posthumous Rich List. The music editor at the Guardian asked me to write about it, and I thought, ‘well, maybe there’s something more interesting if we go and speak to the estates themselves, rather than just look at the numbers’. Forbes does a brilliant job in putting a dollar value on these estates, but they don’t really talk about the dynamics of running an estate. The dynamics of running a dead business really intrigued me, not in a ghoulish way, but as a subset of the music industry that’s not really spoken about.
I had done a book for Omnibus Press, and when I was asked to do a second book, I went in with all guns blazing and I basically said, ‘it has to be a book on estates.’ At that point, things like hologram tours were happening, and Bowie and Prince had both died. So there was a lot of focus on leaving a meticulously planned will and not leaving any will.
I drew up a list of people to speak to: family members who run estates, professionals who run estates, record company people, publishers, hologram companies, all of the branding experts, a lot of lawyers. I basically just got in contact with as many people as possible and said, ‘I’m writing a book on estates, can I speak to you?’ And most people said, ‘okay.’ The Prince estate declined because there was still huge uncertainty over it, and the James Brown estate was a mess. I tried to get in contact with Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono, but I think that there’s so much politics tied up with the Beatles that they can’t really talk independently about it.
But I managed to get a mix of really, really big estates and smaller estates. So there’s Michael Jackson, Elvis, Whitney Houston, Jimi Hendrix, and then there’s estates like Ian Dury and Poly Styrene, where it’s basically just a family member running it part-time. But they all have a common goal, which is to keep the artist’s name in the public consciousness. But how they do that – the tools are very, very different.
What became clear in the research is that in the last 10 to 15 years – there’s been not a complete power shift, but estate marketing used to be run by the record companies. They would generally tie things to anniversaries: the anniversary of the artist’s death or the anniversary of their birth, or X number of years since a classic album was done, and that was it. But now with things like social media, the estates themselves are able to take more of a lead role in the marketing. I think they realized that they had to follow the market and its dynamics, to be on Instagram and Twitter and have a YouTube channel and be on TikTok and do all of these things.
Because now the idea of disappearing for 10 years and waiting for the next big anniversary just doesn’t work. You have to find ways and hooks for young consumers to get in. Younger audiences are incredibly literate and because they’ve got access to everything they can consume everything. They go, ‘right, I can listen to Miles Davis and Kurt Cobain and Billie Eilish back to back and see no difference between any of them because they all emotionally connect with me’. If you find a way into an artist for someone at age 14, into an artist as great as Nick Drake or Aretha Franklin or Prince or whoever, that will blow their mind, that will completely shape their worldview – they’ll stay a fan of that artist for the rest of their lives.
PKM: You mentioned that you wanted to have a contrast between the larger estates and the smaller estates. Some of the most interesting stories in the book are the estates like Nick Drake and Eva Cassidy, where the artists didn’t leave that much material when they passed away, and then suddenly became way more popular than they ever were while they were alive. What are the considerations for an estate, for an artist like that?
Eamonn Forde: Some of the managing can be outsourced. But often these people have to suddenly jump on it. Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley’s mother, had to immediately swing into action and get her lawyer to issue a cease-and-desist order to Sony because Sony were trying to put out the Tom Verlaine recordings that Jeff had scrapped. She’d only just buried her son and was having to deal with that. And imagine what it’s like, where you’re grieving someone but then you have to sit down every single day and talk about that person and about their business interests, and represent them as best you can and ensure that people still talk about them. It’s a very difficult emotional thing to get your head around.
But underlying all of that is this zeal and this desire to be sure that these people are not forgotten. It’s almost that they’re on this mission to right what they perceive to be an historical wrong. These people were incredible musicians, incredible creators, incredible artists who should be better known, but the momentum behind them at the time of their death wasn’t enough to bring them up to that level.
Nick Drake had obviously lots of mental health issues. He didn’t like performing live. He went back and lived with his parents in this genteel country place for a few years and then died. And no one really knew about him. There were little moments along the way, but all the way through that, his parents were trying to get interest in him and maintain an interest. And then when his parents passed away, Gabrielle, his sister, took it over. But she’s an actor as well and it was taking up too much of her time. So she got in Cally Calomon, who worked at Island Records and who she met dealing with reissues of Nick’s old albums, to kind of run things. And that changed the dynamic as well. Suddenly you had someone who really, really loved and understood Nick Drake, but who also really understood the music business. So then you got ‘Pink Moon’ being used in a car ad, and the big documentary that Brad Pitt narrated. And then, and then, and then….but it took like 30 years for that to happen.
PKM: Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have a family member involved in running the estate? As you point out, obviously they have an emotional connection to the artist, but, although it’s terrible to say, some of them just want to keep the money flowing.
Eamonn Forde: Yeah, this is the real tricky balancing act. If you can afford it, you should probably get in a specialist. The specialist does the daily work, and the family members can be there for checks and balances in terms of what they feel is appropriate for that artist. And that other person can handle the business side of things, because you’re expected to know a lot of things: music copyright law, trademark law, merchandise deals, all of these things. It’s a very complicated business. Unless you’re already in the music industry, you’re suddenly kind of thrown into the deep end to try and make sense of this and try and make the right aesthetic decisions as well as the right commercial decisions. But sometimes – one lawyer said to me, ‘when it passes down to the third generation, that’s when all the really bad decisions get made.’ It’s grandchildren who didn’t really know the person, and certainly didn’t understand them when they were at their peak of being creative. If they were born into reasonable luxury, they’ll just go “let’s keep making money”, and they will make terrible decisions.
But it doesn’t always follow that pattern. There’s the example of Maria Callas’ sister trying to persuade her label to put out Callas’ scrapped final album, because the sister and her husband needed the money. The guy in charge of the label did a bit of digging around and spoke to her biographer, spoke to someone who dealt with her in the Dallas opera, and a few other people. And they all said: never ever release this. It’s a terrible recording, her voice is gone, and it will ruin her reputation. So he basically went back to Maria Callas’ sister – who, I should stress, there was not much sibling love between them – and she was stopped from trying to release this record. So there’s things like that too.
One lawyer told me that his advice to new estates, particularly if a family member is heavily involved, is: don’t do anything for the first year. Just use that first year to get a handle on things and go through the grieving process. Because if you’re suddenly dropped into it, you’re going to be making very reactive decisions, which are often very bad, very damaging decisions. And you’re dealing with someone’s legacy. If you, as the representative, make a bad decision or do a deal that casts them in a terrible light, you’re kind of slashing at the reputation that this artist has meticulously built through their life. But sometimes it’s just pure greed or pure stupidity or pure arrogance that drives some of these decisions. At that point, well, sympathy starts to run dry, because you know what you’re doing, and you’re putting your own personal and financial interests above the legacy interest of the artist.
All musicians face that art and commerce balance. They make right decisions, they make wrong decisions, but they’re their decisions. But then all of that responsibility is transferred to an heir: a parent, a sibling, a child – and that’s a huge responsibility. And sometimes you’ve got strained family relationships, where children become heirs and they haven’t seen their parents for decades, and then suddenly they’re in charge. Or in the case of Prince, half-siblings that he seemed to have basically no dealings with in his lifetime are now in charge of his estate, because he didn’t leave a will. If the artist hasn’t left a will, the estate is just going to go to whoever makes it through the judge’s ruling. Sometimes that works, but most of the time, it doesn’t. These people don’t know each other and don’t know the artist, and maybe came from not much money, and then – it’s kind of like winning the lottery. They suddenly think it’s all about them. And the estates where the people who run it think it’s all about them are the ones that are heading for disaster.
Eamonn Forde: That use of AI is where it starts to get really, really sinister, when you can literally put music or words in the voice of the artist. You could have a kind of hologram who comes on stage and goes, ‘hello, Cleveland, please vote for Trump in the next presidential election’, getting them to say really horrible things, or say, ‘oh, I really, really love Coca-Cola, it’s my favorite fizzy beverage’ or whatever.
I spoke to the person who does social media for people like Mama Cass and Jim Morrison. For Jim Morrison, all they’re doing is putting up quotes of things that he said, quotes from his journal, from his lyrics, from his poetry, from interviews. They said, we’re not Jim Morrison, and we would never, ever pretend to be Jim Morrison. I think that’s a good way to do it. You’re finding quotes that are relevant or apposite for today, and you’re just leaving it there. When you have things like the Elvis Twitter account congratulating Justin Bieber for breaking the record for the most weeks at number one in America, and there was a to and fro between Elvis and Justin Bieber on social media, it was really weird. Things like that, you just go: no. You could say, the Elvis Presley estate congratulates Justin Bieber on equaling Elvis Presley’s record, but not, hey, this is Elvis from beyond the grave, and congratulations to Justin Bieber. You have to tread really carefully.
There’s an argument for stuff that sits in the vault to come out, if it’s deemed to be of sufficient quality. Vladimir Horowitz’s widow had the instructions where three people who’d worked with him had a veto over any unreleased recordings, based on musical performance and audio quality. I think things like that are really good. Unlike the AI thing or the social media thing, you’re not doing something that they didn’t do. Once you start imagining what they would do on a creative level, you’re going down the wrong path.
PKM: Do you think that living artists are learning from how estates are being run successfully or less successfully? In the book, you give the examples of Neil Young and Bob Dylan already archiving and mining their back catalogs.
Eamonn Forde: I think certain artists are. Paul McCartney’s another really good example. He’s got full-time archivists and he really understands the importance of that. That’s partly because when the Beatles split, he felt they didn’t have much control, because EMI controlled everything. I think he kind of wants to right that wrong in his eyes. But I think there are more artists out there who are just seeing these terrible, terrible things that happen. Great artists like Prince, like Aretha Franklin, like James Brown, who don’t leave wills, who don’t have proper planning in place – chaos ensues.
And there’s a real risk that they can be forgotten if the estate’s locked in litigation, which the James Brown estate was for 14 or 15 years. That’s 14 or 15 years of James Brown not being introduced to younger audiences. If we were having this conversation 20 years ago and you said, ‘there’s a risk that James Brown could be forgotten by the next generation of music fans’, you would just go, ‘that’s ridiculous – James Brown’s DNA runs through pretty much every form of popular music from the 1950s onwards, how could a giant of popular music be forgotten?’ But there’s a real risk that he is, because the estate is like the cliché, the shark has to keep moving or otherwise it dies. You have to find ways to make this artist interesting and relevant and important for new audiences. You’re not just super-serving your existing fans, you have to be grooming or generating the fan bases of tomorrow.
Neil Young and Bob Dylan and people like that I think have a keen understanding of their legacy, but I think they also want to be able to control it as well, because they know what will happen if they don’t. You see that with the way the David Bowie estate was structured. Bowie had – “benefit” is the wrong word, but Bowie knew that he was ill for a long time. So he was able to put things in place. I think it also came from the fact that he felt in the 1970s he was ripped off by Tony DeFries, and he spent years claiming back his copyrights and stuff like that. He would have thought all of that would have been in vain if he hadn’t had some sort of succession plan in place. So there will be artists who, like Bowie, you would expect to leave something very neat and structured and erudite and prescient. I think more and more artists, when they hear these horror stories of what happens to some estates, they go, ‘I don’t want to leave chaos like that behind.’
Lots of musicians just hate talking about death, but also, this is not specific to musicians or celebrities or creators. There’s lots of stats out there about how most people don’t have proper wills in place, just because they think it’s something that they’ll figure out later. Musicians’ wills have more moving parts than your will or my will – there’s more money at stake and there’s more intellectual property at stake, and it’s just bigger. But the same logic applies to everyone. So you can’t say, ‘oh, Prince was a bit stupid because he didn’t leave a will’. There’s lots of people who died unexpectedly at age 57 who didn’t leave a will. That’s not an uncommon problem.
I think artists now are seeing that you do need to think about this stuff, and you do need to put plans in place. You might need to understand that not all of your children get on, and that could cause huge, huge problems when they’re fighting over your legacy. Your legacy either is on hold or is kind of kicked into the long grass while they try and figure out their personal grievances as they’re mourning. If you’ve got siblings who don’t get on who then suddenly have to sit down and have meetings once a week, business meetings and strategy meetings and all of that stuff, and they absolutely hate each other, or you’re dealing with kids, you’re dealing with the second wife or the second husband, or all of those – I think that the more horrible, worst-case-scenario stories like that should spook artists to sit down and go, ‘right, I don’t want this to happen. I need to write a plan.’
Jeff Jambol, who manages several estates, said that ideally he would like to sit down with artists, living artists, and write up a user’s manual for their estate. Do you want your music used in an advert? Would you want to have your face stuck on dog treats? Would you want to reappear as a hologram? If cannabis is made legal in more markets, would you want a cannabis line? And he would just tick all of those things off. Then you hand that over to the estate, and they’re not second-guessing what that person would want. It’s not necessarily trying to micromanage from beyond the grave, but it’s having a kind of moral business and aesthetic compass to hand on to your heirs and just go, okay, here are very broad guidelines, off you go, try and do your best within these guidelines.
PKM: I’m really glad people like you are chronicling this side of the business, because it underlies so much of the creative products we all get to enjoy.
Eamonn Forde: Most of these estates, the people are never really spoken to. They just kind of exist, they get on and do their business. And once people realized that I wasn’t there in a kind of tabloidy way, that I genuinely was interested in the business side of things, I could talk to them. Maybe it was just somebody coming along and saying, oh, I’m interested in what you do, and I think what you’re doing is valid and is worthy of analysis.
I think people are slightly squeamish of the idea of kind of capitalizing on death. And certainly there were two moments which I used for kind of a moral guide for writing up the book, for trying to remember that these are sometimes family members grieving. Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley’s mother, it took ages to get in contact with her because by her own admission, she said, I’m just really flaky and I never reply to emails and I forget stuff. When I was interviewing her, I think at around two or two-and-a half hours, I said, “I feel like I’ve taken up enough of your time.” And she said, “No, keep going, because you’ll try and get another interview and I’ll forget, or I’ll move on and do something else, so keep going.”
And then she was talking about when she heard the news that Jeff had drowned and that they’d found the body and pulled the body out of the Mississippi. I’m on a Zoom call, like I am with you, and she just burst into tears. And I’m sitting there going, what can I do? You can’t give someone a hug, but you can say, ‘are you all right? Do you want to pause? Do you want to do this at another time?’ But she sobbed there for a minute or two in front of me, and then she said, “Right, okay, let’s carry on.” She said, “I allow myself to cry a couple of times a week. That’s just what I do. You got me on one of my crying days.”
And then suddenly you’re realizing, well, not that I didn’t know that, but it was: this is a mother. I would say the worst thing is a parent burying their child. It’s just the most unimaginably horrific thing to have to do. And now she has to be his representative on earth, always talking about his music, always talking about him. That really drove it home.
Then when I interviewed Jemima Dury, Ian Dury’s daughter, right at the end of the interview, I asked her, “All the way through the interview, you referred to him as ‘Ian’. You never, ever referred to him as ‘dad’.” And she said, “Oh, God, yeah, that was a coping mechanism that I used really early on. When I’m talking about Ian, he’s kind of this abstract pop star, and I can talk about it and I don’t get emotional. But if I start referring to him as dad, I think, okay, well I’ve lost my dad and I’m getting really upset.”
It was those two little stories that reminded me that these are people who are still grieving and have to talk about the person that they lost: a parent or, God forbid, a child. And they still have to represent them. The raw exposed emotions are there, but they want to keep this person in the public eye, and to do that, they have to keep talking about them. You don’t really have respite from the grieving. Most people get to grieve and then they can get on with their normal lives. And obviously they think about their parents or their siblings or whoever that they’ve lost, but they’re not sitting down every single day, drawing up business plans for them and considering what should be done on their behalf.
So that side of it was really something I wanted to have going through the book, that these are generally families that are dealing with death on a daily basis. Obviously, you have to talk about the negative side, when things go wrong, but I hopefully treated it with enough sensitivity and enough respect. These are families, and sometimes they just make stupid decisions because they’re still grieving.
But the north star of the whole thing should be: this artist is important, and this artist should be remembered. How do we do that? How do we best achieve that after they’ve gone?
Leaving the Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates is published by Omnibus Press.