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The Big Business of Rock Estates

From Elvis to Whitney, how stars keep cash coming after their deaths

March 29, 2012 3:55 PM ET

marley cobain presley estates
Michael Putland/Getty Images; Raffaella Cavalieri/Redferns; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When big music stars die, renewed interest in their careers can instantly be worth tons of money. And beyond a short-term enterprise, the business of departed artists can – if managed well – be lucrative for years, feeding off the artists' legacies, work and marketable images. But who gets the money? And who gets to decide what to sell?

Those are complex questions, usually involving months of legal proceedings and business negotiations. In some cases, as with Johnny Cash's estate, for which the singer and his wife, June Carter, spelled out everything beforehand, the process can be relatively painless. In others, such as Ray Charles' estate, which is still being hashed out in court, family fights seem endless. And as reported this week, Amy Winehouse's parents will inherit her wealth by default, as the singer did not leave a will –  how the estate will operate moving forward is to be determined. But after the legal issues end, most estates come to a sort of day-to-day equilibrium, handling as many as dozens of requests per week to use music or images, then rejecting the most absurd ones (Jimi Hendrix toilet paper!).

"We practice the Hippocratic Oath of rock, which is, 'First, do no harm,'" says Jeff Jampol, president of Jam Inc., which manages Janis Joplin's estate and consults with Michael Jackson's estate. "In my eyes, these artists lived and died for their legacies, and their legacies belong to them – not movie directors, not record labels, not book publishers." Here's a run-down of some of the most active, sought-after or evolving rocker estates.

Elvis Presley
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Artist: Elvis Presley

Estate manager: It's complicated. Robert F.X. Sillerman – the businessman who founded SFX Entertainment and sold it to Clear Channel, which morphed into Live Nation, the world's biggest concert promoter – bought 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises for $53 million in 2004. Sillerman's company, CFx, was sold to Apollo Global Management last year. Lisa Marie, Elvis' sole heir, retains a 15 percent stake in the estate and continues to own Graceland.

Major projects: "Elvis Presley In Concert," starring a video-projected Giant Elvis along with the King's former concert bandmates, is touring Europe through the end of March.

Recent or upcoming milestones: The official Elvis website, elvis.com, is already marketing Lisa Marie Presley's album Storm & Grace, due May 15th.

Philosophy: For now, it's simply to boost yearly Graceland visitors, which dropped since the recession from roughly 600,000 to 500,000 in 2011, according to reports. But in general, Lisa Marie Presley told Rolling Stone in 2005: "I don't know if people have this misconception that we're going to build a giant casino on the lawn of Graceland, or that Elvis condoms are going to be mass-distributed throughout the world, but that's not going to happen."

john and yoko
Ron Galella/WireImage

Artist: John Lennon

Estate manager: Yoko Ono

Major projects: After Lennon died in 1980, his family found more than 1,500 drawings, which Ono began putting out in 1986. Ono regularly sends touring exhibits around the world to display some of these, as well as his written work.

Recent or upcoming milestones: There was a flurry of activity around John Lennon's 70th birthday on October 9th, 2010, including fan and tribute events, and a long list of remastered and repackaged Lennon recordings.

Philosophy: Ono keeps tight control over her late husband's image, songs and works, mostly choosing projects that support his famously peacenik beliefs. "Now I feel like the whole big thing of John is like an umbrella around me, protecting me. I still have emotions and an emotional life," she told The Observer in 2008.  "I have decided to love all the people who miss John. A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is a reality."

ray charles
David Corio/Redferns

Artist: Ray Charles

Estate manager: The Ray Charles Foundation, run by a board of directors including Joe Adams, 87, Charles' longtime manager, who has had "virtually unchallenged power" over the estate, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, several of Charles' 12 children have filed suit since the R&B legend's death in 2004, claiming Adams and other foundation officials have not properly protected his legacy. The dispute became especially ugly in late 2010, when the foundation sued Ray Charles Robinson Jr. and his publisher for including the singer's likeness and song lyrics in a reflective book about his father.

Major projects: Charles' image and music have popped up all over the place since his death, from CBS' Cold Case premiere in 2009 to a late 2011 Pepsi "Music Icons" retread of his iconic "You Got the Right One Baby, Uh-Huh" commercial.

Recent or upcoming milestones: Charles' 80th birthday in late 2010 kicked off a 20-month tribute, including the release of Ray, Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters.

Philosophy: True to Charles' wishes, the Ray Charles Foundation focuses on youth programs and helping people with hearing impairments (while Charles was blind, he often said that hearing impairment would be a true handicap; he therefore began funding cochlear implants for those who could not afford them). But Charles' children have been critical of overdubbed posthumous CDs. "The biggest issue with me is disrespect for the family and kids," the Rev. Robert Robinson told the Times in 2008. "If you respect a man and his work, then you respect his kids. His blood is flowing through our veins."

hendrix
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Artist: Jimi Hendrix

Estate manager: Janie Hendrix, president and CEO of Experience Hendrix LLC, the family-owned corporation in charge of the late guitar hero's music and image. Jimi's father, Al, won the rights to Jimi's archives in 1995. Before he died in 2002, Al Hendrix made Jimi's sister, Janie, the sole heir, essentially cutting Jimi's brother, Leon, who had dealt with drug and alcohol problems, out of the estate. After Al's death, Leon insisted Janie manipulated Al into blocking him from future earnings. A judge ruled in Janie's favor in 2004, but in another case, Leon won the rights to use Jimi's name and likeness.

Major projects: The Experience Hendrix tour, starring Buddy Guy, former Hendrix sideman Billy Cox, the Doors' Robby Krieger, Aerosmith's Brad Whitford and many others, continues through the end of March.

Recent or upcoming milestones: In honor of what would have been Hendrix' 70th birthday (in November), his hometown, Seattle, plans to open a guitar-shaped park in his honor sometime this year.

Philosophy: No violence. "We just don't want somebody getting their head blown up or some war scene during his music," Janie Hendrix says. "Because, as he said, 'Power of love, power of soul.'"

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