The inside story of why MJ’s touring business is now bigger than ever
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week’s issue of Billboard.
In the fall of 1987, not long after the release of his blockbuster album Bad, Michael Jackson and his longtime lawyer/adviser John Branca piled into a van to see the Los Angeles debut of Cirque du Soleil at the Santa Monica Pier.
They took a van, with Branca driving, despite the fact that Jackson had gifted Branca with a Rolls-Royce, and their journey was briefly stalled after Branca headed in the wrong direction on the congested Interstate 405. But the pair eventually made it to the show. Cirque du Soleil was 3 years old at the time, and true to its inspiration in the circus, was housed in a tent on this visit to Los Angeles. Jackson could hardly contain his excitement to watch the Quebec troupe perform, Branca recalls.
“After the show, Michael said to me, ‘Branca, we have to go backstage and meet the cast,'” he says. “I couldn’t tell who was more excited, the cast to meet Michael or Michael to meet the cast. That’s how enthusiastic he was.”
Jackson’s growing fascination with Cirque didn’t end there. After attending many other performances by the troupe, known for its mesmerizing aerial acrobatics and otherworldly costumes, the King of Pop decided to visit the company’s Montreal headquarters to get a firsthand look at its operations.
“I did the tour with him,” Cirque president/CEO Daniel Lamarre remembers. “As you can imagine, all our employees were thrilled to have him in our studio, and he was thrilled to be here. He spent a lot of time in our creative studio and our costume workshop. It was a great day.”
At the time, Jackson was still filling arenas and stadiums around the world. Neither the pop icon nor Cirque could have fathomed that an arena trek blending hits like “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” with stunning visuals and the theatrical touch of Cirque would one day rank among the top 10 highest-grossing tours in history.
But indeed it has, proving that even in death, Michael Jackson remains one of the most lucrative musical brands in today’s live entertainment business.
CONCEIVED THROUGH AN equal revenue-sharing partnership between the Jackson estate and Cirque du Soleil, “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” recently became the No. 9 top-grossing tour of all time, earning $325.1 million from 407 shows that drew 2,985,324 concert-goers, according to Billboard Boxscore. Tickets prices ranged between $50 and $250.
“Immortal” also ranked fourth among Billboard’s top 25 highest-grossing tours of 2012 and took home the Creative Content Award at the Billboard Touring Awards that same year. Although official rankings haven’t yet been released, “Immortal” will rank among the highest-grossing tours of 2013 as well.
On the Boxscore chart, “Immortal” edges out the Rolling Stones’ 1994-95 Voodoo Lounge tour (ranked No. 10, with $320 million in grosses) and trails Bruce Springsteen’s 2012-13 Wrecking Ball tour (No. 8, $347 million). U2, the Stones and Roger Waters are the top three highest-grossing touring acts, respectively. Jackson is the only deceased artist among the top 10.
The Jackson estate’s deal with Cirque also includes a permanent Las Vegas theater production, “Michael Jackson One,” that debuted in May at a refurbished, 1,800-seat theater at Mandalay Bay, the former home of “The Lion King” and “Mamma Mia!” Since opening, “One” has been selling at about 93% occupancy from an average of 10 shows per week, according to Cirque.
“The ‘One’ and ‘Immortal’ shows represent a true Michael experience, the next best thing to seeing him live,” says Branca, who now serves as co-executor of the Jackson estate with John McClain. “‘Immortal’ is akin to a rock concert experience with a live band in an arena, and ‘One’ is more of a theatrical show.”
With a total development cost of about $145 million, “Immortal” and “One” are two separate and distinct productions built around Jackson’s music. Both shows were written and directed by Jamie King, a dancer on Jackson’s Dangerous world tour in the early ’90s. The productions also feature several other musicians, choreographers and costume designers Jackson worked with during his career.
Despite the onstage absence of Jackson himself, King says the songs, images, spoken-word interludes and other visuals chosen for “Immortal” and “One” reflect the very best of the pop legend’s life and musical career.
“I had the heavy responsibility of bringing Michael’s spirit onto the stage, reflecting his creative sensibilities and projecting his unbelievable talent for his fans,” says King, who has also directed arena tours by Madonna, Britney Spears and Rihanna. “Michael was never, ever missing during the development, rehearsals and launch of these two shows.”
“Immortal” debuted at Montreal’s Bell Centre in October 2011 and performed its 407th show at New Zealand’s Vector Arena on Nov. 3. The trek will relaunch in December with a lengthy run in Dubai before returning to various-sized North American arenas in March 2014 (see story, right). Cirque is also in talks with international promoters about bringing “Immortal” to select overseas territories. So far, it has already visited 25 countries on four continents.
Lamarre believes the tour will continue to climb the Boxscore chart. “I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the tour, whenever the end of the tour is, we ranked among the top five touring shows in the history of rock’n’roll,” he says.
WHEN JACKSON DIED on June 25, 2009, from drug-related cardiac arrest at the age of 50, he was reportedly $500 million in debt from years of excessive spending. Though he still had high earning potential based on 50 sold-out shows for his “This Is It” residency at London’s O2 Arena, Jackson has earned more money in death than when he was living. Billboard estimated that MJ Inc. generated at least $1 billion in revenue in the year following his death (Billboard, June 2010).
Last year the Jackson estate paid off the late singer’s outstanding personal debt, thanks in part to a lucrative $250 million deal with Sony Music, profits from the concert film “Michael Jackson: This Is It,” 50 million albums sold worldwide after his death, his half ownership of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, various licensing deals and the high-grossing Cirque shows.
“Sometimes, sadly, our great artists are appreciated more after they’ve passed away. Michael was a great artist and his legacy is enduring,” Branca says. “But there was a lot of interest in Michael, and a lot of earning power, before he passed away, witnessed with 50 sold-out shows at the O2 Arena.”
Overall earnings from the Jackson estate are divided among charity (20%), the singer’s children (40%) and his mother, Katherine Jackson (40%). Jackson’s three kids will receive Katherine’s share upon her death. Generally, Branca and McClain receive a 10% commission rate of the estate’s earnings.
Branca says the estate is constantly approached with ideas for Jackson-related projects, but he and McClain are very selective about new partnerships and licensing deals. “We don’t want to over-license Michael, but we do license those products that we think are appropriate and fun,” Branca says, citing a successful approval for a Jackson slot machine in Las Vegas. “We’re careful.”
But the co-executors had always planned on a live experience around Jackson’s music. Cirque seemed like an ideal partner given the artist’s past appreciation for the troupe. So in late 2009, the estate began discussions with Cirque about potential projects. “We had thought about several potential partners to create a show, and after careful deliberation we felt Cirque was the best potential partner,” Branca says. “They’re very creative and groundbreaking, much like Michael was. They’re also perfectionists, like Michael was.”
Branca and McClain initially envisioned only a permanent show in Vegas based on Jackson’s music, similar to Cirque’s perennially sold-out “Beatles Love” concept at the Mirage Hotel, which began in 2006. But after lengthy talks, Lamarre and Cirque founder Guy Laliberte found that a permanent tech-heavy show would take years to create and that a global arena tour could be a lucrative endeavor in the meantime.
“In an ideal world, maybe we would’ve done both at the same time,” Lamarre says. “But when doing a permanent show that will probably last forever in Las Vegas, you have to bring technology that is very complicated. We had to redo the theater at Mandalay Bay, which took almost two years. We couldn’t resist the temptation of touring around the world.”
Twenty months after the debut of “Immortal,” the Jackson estate and Cirque, in partnership with MGM Resorts International, began previews of “One” on May 23. The show officially opened June 29. Cirque says it could sell more than 452,000 tickets from 270 performances by the end of 2013. (Numbers for “One” haven’t been reported to Boxscore.)
Cirque and the estate each own 50% of “Immortal” and “One,” and share equally in the cost of producing them. The estate receives royalties from the use of Jackson’s music and other assets. Royalties also go to Sony for the use of his solo master recordings and to music publishers like Warner/Chappell (which administers Jackson’s Mijac Music catalog) and Universal Music Publishing Group (which handles the catalog of songwriter Rod Temperton, who wrote hits like “Rock With You” and “Thriller”).
Branca says the two-pronged Cirque deal plays “an important part of the earnings for the estate.” But he wouldn’t project where the shows rank among the estate’s overall portfolio, in terms of revenue.
“These touring shows were created to generate long-term revenue,” he says. “But the point of these shows is also to continue introducing Michael to new generations of fans. We’re finding that not only existing Michael Jackson fans go to the shows, but also kids and new fans who come and become Michael fans.”
BRANCA BELIEVED IT made sense to release an album in conjunction with the “Immortal” tour. So in November 2011, as part of its multimillion-dollar 10-album deal with the Jackson estate through 2017, Sony released the “Immortal” soundtrack on MJJ/Epic Records
The set features an alternative version of the Jackson 5 hit “ABC” and a series of mash-ups and remixes. The “Immortal” tour utilizes more than 60 songs from Jackson’s catalog, but the album includes 15 tracks (the deluxe edition has 22). The soundtrack debuted at No. 24 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 202,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Aside from the soundtrack, there aren’t plans to release other albums or DVDs in conjunction with “Immortal” or “One.” However, Cirque and the Jackson estate are exploring the idea of releasing a mobile app that provides a look into the show experiences, Branca notes.
Other albums released under the Jackson estate-Sony deal include Michael Jackson’s This Is It (2009), Michael (2010) and the Bad 25th-anniversary edition (2012), which included a concert DVD and documentary directed by Spike Lee. They have collectively sold 2.4 million copies. Also released under the agreement was the three-disc DVD set “Michael Jackson’s Vision” in 2010, which has sold 133,000.
“Michael Jackson is without question the most successful artist in the history of Epic Records,” Epic chairman/CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid says. “His name is synonymous with our label and we take great pride in the fact that Epic has been his musical home for nearly 40 years. From a musical, emotional and business perspective, continuing our relationship with the Michael Jackson estate is paramount. It is a true partnership committed to furthering his legacy for generations to come.”
Rumors continue to circulate about possible new Jackson music-both Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen have said May has worked on tracks that Freddie Mercury and Jackson recorded in 1983-but neither Sony nor Branca would divulge any details about when fans might see the next album from the King of Pop.
“There’s definitely music coming, but I can’t reveal when we think it’s coming,” says Branca, who also declined to reveal whether any other Jackson-related projects are in the works beyond album releases. “Michael had a policy that we try to follow-not to talk about things until they’re ready to be released. We like to keep things under wraps until we’re ready to go with everything. We have ideas and things we’re working on, but nothing that we’re ready to announce.”