Leaving The Building - Process
When a musician dies, it is rarely the end of their story. Leaving the Building, published on the 19th August, explores the fascinating world of music estates.
Author Dr Eamonn Forde is a music business and technology journalist with huge experience of writing about all areas of the music industry.
To find out a bit more about music estates, we asked Eamonn a few questions.
Tell us about the process of writing this book…
Everything dates back to a feature I wrote for The Guardian in 2016. For it I spoke to record label people as well as the estates of Nick Drake and Vladimir Horowitz, but the real breakthrough was getting to speak to John Branca who runs the Michael Jackson estate, the most lucrative celebrity estate in history (and arguably the most controversial).
I knew as I was writing it that the 1,700 words I had been given for that piece were only scratching the surface and that this was an enormously fascinating – but barely talked about – division of the music business. It was actually among the initial book pitches that I first took to Omnibus, but I also had one on the small matter of EMI being sold to a private equity firm and that deal going disastrously wrong.
The estates idea was one that I couldn’t shake and so it was the one I pitched hardest to Omnibus for book two.
The book process was based around two very distinct phases – the background reading and the interviews.
I tracked down every article I could find that was even tangentially related to estates (not just music estates) and devoured them. In the end, there were over 1,000 of them. Plus there were around 30 books drawn on – a mix of biographies, books on art estates and books on running museums – to fill in gaps.
From that, I worked out a structure where I broke the story down into distinct chapters that focused in on all the major parts of the estates business that could, theoretically, be read separately. There is a loose chronology running through the book but I felt it needed to be thematic as this was a business that was adding new moving parts all the time (notably the move into holograms and AI) and they all came with their own opportunities for legacy management and their own problems.
Then it was a case of lining up an interview wish list. Some people I already knew (or knew how to get to) and others came from mutual contacts, but the bulk of it was cold contacting people. Some estates were happy to talk, in part I think because they are rarely ever spoken to. Some flat out refused to speak. They have their reasons and you have to respect that.
I found the best route was contacting lawyers who dealt with estates as they would help open doors to speak to the estates themselves. Other people I spoke to – when they realised it was a business book rather than one concerned with scandal for scandal’s sake – would contact key estates to ask them to speak to me. In one case, I was able to speak to the head of the estate for a very big artist who I had tried to get to via their PR. The PR said they did not do interviews but would ask if they would speak to me (I am pretty sure the PR never sent that email). But when I contacted them and mentioned the contact from another major estate who recommended them, they immediately booked in a time to speak to me and happily answered all follow-up questions.
Estates are a closed world and, because of the sensitivities in dealing with the legacy of a dead artist, there is a sense of suspicion of people snooping around. In one case, I had to “audition” for the head of an estate’s PR before they would speak to me. They were sounding me out to see if I understood how the music business worked (thankfully I know bits and pieces about this world…) so that I was not wasting the estate’s time. I got the green light.
I wanted to cover estates of all sizes and across a variety of genres to understand how they all worked, what the similarities were and what the idiosyncrasies were. In the end, I spoke to over 100 people (some off the record for political reasons, but most on the record) to make it as comprehensive as possible. There was, inevitably, a huge amount of transcribing but – and perhaps this makes me an outlier – I quite enjoy the process as it helps me formulate ideas as I am going through them.
The writing process was unlike the EMI book where I just wrote it and did no other work until it was finished. Here I staggered the writing over a few months so I had a break and didn’t become fatigued by the subject.
It was written just a few months into the pandemic in 2020. While I was stuck at home, I had time to write and jump between other work without it being overwhelming. That said, writing a book about death during a pandemic is probably not psychologically healthy.
Inevitably I wrote far too much so had to chop it down. Initially I was worried about cutting out any detail, however minor, but it helped focus what the book should be about.
On my computer there is a document that is about 50% longer than the published book. Maybe long after I die, the unabridged version can finally be published to mark a significant anniversary or they can create a hologram of me reading it all, from start to finish, that can go on tour. Who wouldn’t want to buy tickets to that?
What makes for good or bad estate management?
Obviously every estate is different: they are different sizes, they have different budgets and they have different goals. But one thing that runs through them all is the need to have the family both deeply involved but also held at arm’s length by an independent estate manager. This, from all the people I have spoken to for the book, seems to be the best strategy.
The family members are there and involved because they know the artist and they know what kind of things they would and wouldn’t do, so they can morally and ethically steer the estate. But equally they need an independent person in place to make the hard business decisions. Families can stop good ideas from happening but equally it is the family that often pushes through the really terrible decisions. They are so emotionally invested in the artist’s legacy that they cannot see when they are making decisions that will damage that legacy.
Also if the estate does not turn over a huge amount of money for the beneficiaries, desperation can override everything and they do deals that might bring in money in the short term but that cause enormous long-term damage. The case of Maria Callas illustrates this perfect. Her sister (who she had a strained relationship with anyway) moved in the 1980s to have Callas’s final recordings released. The executive in charge of the label refused, arguing that they were scrapped for a reason – her voice was shot and the performances were substandard. The label executive understood perfectly that this could ruin her reputation. There would have been money to be made but it would be a terrible blot on her discography. The recordings never came out.
For big estates, saying no is their superpower. They can pick and choose what to do as they do not need the money: it become purely about legacy management. Only a handful of estates have this luxury so all other estates have to think and behave as if the artist were still alive and be as active as a young artist putting out new records today. Yes, that often means being active on social media but ultimately they need to be constantly thinking of ways to find new audiences.
The best estates are those with a careful balance between family members on one side and an impartial business manager on the other side. Legacy and commerce.
The main mistake new estates make is in trying to do too much, too quickly. One estate manager told me that an estate should do nothing in the first year after an artist dies as that is when all the truly terrible decisions are made.
The next worst time for an estate is when direct family members themselves pass away and the running of the estate passes down to a new generation who never knew the artist. They are not as finely attuned to what the artist would want done with their legacy and, because there is a level of emotional distance, they make decision that are steered purely by economics. It is the same as children who inherit great wealth and have never had to work: they do not understand or appreciate the value of what they have been made custodians of.
Ultimately a good or bad estate will hinge on the will. Not making a proper will is, despite all the high-profile horror stories, a mistake that musicians keep on making. They do not leave a will (like Prince), they leave too many conflicting wills (like Aretha Franklin) or they do not update their will to include new children or a change of domestic circumstances (too many to list).
Everything an estate can and cannot do is contingent on the will. This is where horrible in-fighting can happen as old animosities between family members race to the surface. This is not confined to split families where the artist has married a number of times or had children with a number of different partners: even tight family units can be blown apart when there are fights over money and control. And when there are fights, the business of the estate goes on hold or even into reverse.
Estates have to be in constant motion as they are fighting against, especially with generational changes, the slide into irrelevance. All time spent fighting over an estate will cost that estate money but it will also cost that estate something more valuable – time.
Could you recommend an artist who has not received the attention they deserve due to estate management issues?
It has hopefully – and finally – just been resolved, but following the issues around the James Brown estate have been greatly upsetting. It has been ripped apart by politics, in-fighting, disputes over the will and more – all of which has meant that the money that Brown had specified should go to a foundation to help underprivileged children has been put on ice for close on 15 years.
Brown is a giant of popular music and those I spoke to for the book who know the inner workings (or the inner turmoil) of his estate have said that the biggest shame is that the longer the estate is tangled up in legal disputes the further Brown starts to slide out of the public consciousness.
The estate could have spent that time elevating his reputation as the catalyst for an astonishing amount of music – the inspiration for so many incredible musicians that followed him and the architect of much of contemporary music.
There was a real risk that Brown could have been forgotten as the years passed because there was no one steering his legacy and reminding people of just how incredible he was.
Ideally that can change now the estate seems to have resolved all its internal issues, but it now has 15 years of lost time to make up for. This is not going to be easy.
If new generations of music fans do not know who James Brown is and how he shaped so much of the current music they love, then the entire purpose of the estate has failed. This would be a tragedy and a travesty of unimaginable proportions.
Leaving The Building by Eamonn Forde is now available.