Can Elvis Rise Again?
Elvis Presley may have died 43 years ago, but on a recent morning in midtown New York, plans are underway to resurrect him. In a conference room in the offices of Authentic Brands Group, the firm in charge of licensing and marketing Presley, executives are discussing the many projects they’ve been working on since taking over the estate in 2013. There’s an Elvis filter on Snapchat, which gives you his face, pompadour, and bedazzled jacket. There’s a plan to release a video of Elvis and all of his beloved animals on the Dodo, a popular pet site (you will also be able to buy CBD-infused Hound Dog treats). There are film and TV projects, including Agent King, an offbeat animated series coming to Netflix next year. Co-created by Priscilla Presley, the show will aim for a BoJack Horseman feel, where a cartoon Elvis goes undercover as a crime-busting government spy. At the head of the table, CEO Jamie Salter confidently promises that next year will be “probably the biggest year in the history of Elvis Presley.”
These plans are all part of a major effort to make Presley cool again. More than 60 years after his first momentous sessions at Sun Records, his empire is in need of a reboot. While the Presley estate was annually pulling in $60 million a decade ago, that number has since fallen by 30 percent, according to Forbes. Sales of memorabilia dropped from nearly $4 million in 2017 to less than $1.5 million last year, according to Invaluable, which tracks auction houses. This winter’s Elvis: Seen and Unseen tour, featuring surviving members of his TCB band playing along to video footage of Presley, was postponed, for the second time, due to “unforeseen circumstances” with the archival footage. According to The Guardian, a 2017 U.K. poll found that nearly 30 percent of respondents ages 18 to 24 had never heard one of Presley’s songs.
Given that Presley was one of the first rock stars, the campaign to bring him back amounts to what one music executive calls a “canary in the coal mine” for the legacy of rock & roll. Can it possibly work — and what does it mean for the future careers and earnings of artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, who followed Presley and who are now increasingly distant legends for those who grew up listening to hip-hop, pop, and EDM?
There are reasons for concern. Jeff Jampol, who represents the estates of Janis Joplin and the Ramones and also works with the surviving members and estates of the Doors, recalls a recent dinner with friends in their thirties and forties. “I said, ‘I’m going to the restroom now, and when I come back, I want the title of three Beatle songs, and you can’t use your phones,’” he recalls. Upon his return, they told him they’d come up with one: “Daydream Believer,” a hit by … the Monkees. “That’s where we are with the Beatles,” Jampol sighs. “Imagine where we are for anybody else. And that’s the reality.”
For Team Presley’s branding push, one possible path forward is the the most aggressive approach in decades to the King of Rock and Roll. “Brands die as they get older, and the reason brands die as they get older is because the older generation goes away,” says Salter, whose company also represents Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali. “If you don’t push those brands to the younger generation at all times, eventually you age yourself out. And that’s what was going on with Elvis.”
Today, the Presley estate is estimated to be worth between $400 million and $500 million, according to one Presley exec. That’s less than the Beatles (whose song catalog is said to be worth more than $1 billion) and Queen (thanks to Bohemian Rhapsody, the surviving members top Presley at $575 million). But its income is still impressive: “Forty million a year for a guy who died over 40 years ago is fucking incredible,” says an executive who works with a leading classic-rock act.
It took a lot of work to get there. In the years immediately after he died, there almost wasn’t a Presley estate at all. In 1973, his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, arranged for Presley to sell royalties for his entire back catalog to that point — upward of 1,000 songs — for a flat $5.4 million. That deal, made necessary by Presley’s outrageous spending and Parker’s gambling debt, still has repercussions today: The Presley estate sees no record royalties on many of his biggest hits. (It does co-own the copyrights for some of the songs Presley covered, resulting in additional income.) In Presley’s and his manager’s minds at the time, they would lean heavily on touring revenue for income.
All that changed with Presley’s death in 1977. By the early Eighties, his estate was tanking, plagued by a $10 million IRS bill and income slumping to less than $1 million a year. Around that time, his ex-wife, Priscilla, took charge and put together the first of several new teams to overhaul the estate. In 1982, Graceland opened to the public, allowing fans to get access to the main floor of Elvis’ home, plus his cars and his gun collection. It pulled in 3,000 people on its first day and went on to draw 700,000 attendees a year. By the end of that decade, the Presley estate was making $15 million annually.
In 1993, Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, turned 25. Per his will, she was put in charge of a new trust to run the family business, Elvis Presley Enterprises. (Priscilla had acted as an executor but was not in the will, since she and Elvis were not married when he died.) Hoping to make the business more profitable, Lisa Marie sold an 85 percent interest in the company in 2005 to CKX, the company that also owned American Idol. “You have to either grow or go down,” she said. But it didn’t grow. Plans to expand Graceland fell apart after the 2008 stock market crash; in 2011, CKX was sold to a private-equity firm, which two years later put the rights to the licensing of the Presley estate on the market. Authentic Brands Group snapped up those rights in a $145 million deal.
In the current arrangement, the running of the Presley estate is split between ABG and Joel Weinshanker, a former rock manager who moved on to the profitable collectible and memorabilia world. ABG is in charge of the licensing and merchandising of Presley’s name, image, and likeness. Weinshanker’s Graceland Holdings company owns the bulk of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which operates Graceland, produces Elvis-related live shows, and built and runs the profitable Guest House at Graceland hotel, a four-star luxury hotel that opened in 2015. Lisa Marie still retains ownership of Graceland and her father’s personal possessions, and she still owns 15 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises. (She is currently in the midst of a lawsuit with her former business manager, claiming he squandered her $100 million inheritance and left her with only $14,000.) Priscilla, too, remains aboard as a consultant, appearing at important Presley events. Taking over what he says the previous owners deemed a “declining asset,” Weinshanker turned Graceland into an Elvis theme park, complete with museums, restaurants, and a theater. Today, Weinshanker says, Graceland (and EPE overall) remains the most profitable part of the Presley business.
Yet, as previous estate owners have learned, modernizing Elvis can involve a certain amount of heartbreak. In 2005, the jukebox musical All Shook Up closed on Broadway after only six months. A few years later, Cirque Du Soleil mounted a Las Vegas show, Viva Elvis, featuring Presley footage accompanied by dancers. But attendance was disappointing, and the show closed after just more than two years. When ABG took over, it too found that Presley’s older fans can be exacting. Aiming to go upscale, the company cut back on keychains and other low-price tchotchkes and introduced $100-and-up Dolce & Gabbana Elvis T-shirts. When the fans protested, the company reinstated the less pricey products.
To the likely relief of some fans, ABG also nixed plans brought up by the estate’s previous overseer for an Elvis hologram. Still, Salter isn’t ruling out AI. “Digital humans are very interesting,” he says excitedly. “That’s going to be the next big thing: Elvis will teach you how to play guitar. I’ve seen it. It’s real. I still can’t believe it. I could literally talk to Elvis Presley.”
At the ABG offices, Matt Abruzzo, who oversees the licensing of Presley products, flips open a brochure with Presley stats that the company has compiled. Some are surprising: After the U.S., his second-biggest market is Brazil? But another chart leaps out as well: The bulk of his fan base is 35 and older, with only 11 percent below the age of 34. Those 17 and under account for just 1.6 percent. “That generation is harder,” concedes Salter. (Executives at Graceland maintain that over half of the site’s visitors are under 35.)
That statistic lies at the heart of the issue facing the future of classic-rock revenue. The industry still has monetary legs — over the past decade, the combined road earnings of the Rolling Stones, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John were $3.4 billion. There are still hundreds of classic-rock radio stations, even if they attract smaller numbers than country, Top 40, and adult contemporary. But the future looks daunting, especially with many classic-rock acts retiring from the road and CD sales slowing every month. “It’s weird,” says the manager of one classic-rock act. “Will the assets depreciate in value? Will there be a resurgence? What do you do?”
Other estates are counting on the fundamental emotional appeal of older songs to connect with those who were born decades after rock began. “If you’re a 15-year-old boy or girl and you’ve had your heart broken, and you hear ‘Crying’ on Spotify, it’s going to pull you in,” asserts Alex Orbison, the son of Roy and one of the administrators of his father’s estate. “When people say, ‘Your dad’s music was a long time ago,’ I say, ‘Heartbreak happens in real time.’” In addition to a hologram tour, the Orbison family is also planning a collection of his hits with overdubbed orchestration (a tactic the Presley estate has tried with two albums lately). “When you’re dealing with someone as great as Roy or Elvis, people just need reminding of how great they were and some kind of awareness,” Orbison says. “And whatever that spark is, is good at the end of the day.”
With Presley, one solution is to go younger, starting with the animated Agent King. “Our first reaction was, ‘This is crazy,’” admits ABG exec Marc Rosen. “But we want to take chances; we want to take risks.” Salter adds they were partly convinced by a younger employee at the firm: “He said, ‘People are gravitating to emojis and all these different characters. And I think it would help bring Elvis back as a younger artist.’”
“You don’t present him as a rocker. You present him as this iconic American story.”
The approach applies not only to Agent King but also to an untitled Presley biopic to be directed by Baz Luhrmann. Already filming in Australia, the project stars Austin Butler, known for playing Manson acolyte Tex Watson in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood; Tom Hanks will play Parker, and Yola has been cast as pioneering gospel singer-guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “Baz doesn’t do a movie like Walk the Line,” says Weinshanker. “It’s very, very different. It’s not a linear, week-by-week biopic. It deals with a lot of perspective and emotion.”
Elvis’ team is also making headway in the streaming world. Helped by the use of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in Crazy Rich Asians, his songs were streamed a respectable 544 million times last year, ranking him in the top 200 most-streamed artists of 2019 — well behind everyone from Drake to Michael Jackson, but ahead of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Guns N’ Roses. To appeal to Gen Z, ABG is interested in commissioning more dance remixes like Junkie XL’s 2002 hit version of “A Little Less Conversation.” “We feel strongly that will help us with that generation,” says Salter. “They’re not growing up with rock.”
The estate is also considering subtler strategies. There’s talk of downplaying Elvis’ age during birthday celebrations (his 85th happened in January, with tickets as high as $875, which included a Graceland tour guided by Priscilla). “When we get to his centennial, that’ll feel like he’s old,” says John Jackson, the Sony Music VP who oversees Presley’s back catalog. “How much more emphasis do you want to put on that?” As part of the plan, you’re more likely to see photos of the younger Elvis, not the jumpsuit-era King.
Team Elvis is also planning to de-emphasize Presley’s connection to rock. “He’s the guy who was 18 and straight out of a not-great high school, trying to make something of himself,” says Jackson. “That’s all that Drake and Justin Bieber wanted. You don’t present him as a rocker. You present him as this iconic American story.”
It’s an ambitious plan, which some in the industry feel could work. “If each project, each medium chosen, speaks to the core of who Elvis was, what he stands for, his style, his music and his beliefs, and if each project is completely authentic, credible, and delivers the message, music, and life of Elvis accurately and truthfully, without editing, ‘spin,’ or manipulating anything,” says Jampol, “I’m 100 percent confident that the magic and art of Elvis will successfully transfer, and be passed on successfully to future generations.”
But the plans leave some observers skeptical. “If you’re going to try to be as important as Billie Eilish or Post Malone, you’re fighting a fool’s errand,” says the executive in the classic-rock field. “The idea of trying to get the younger audience involved makes no sense to me. An Elvis cartoon? I don’t know the point of that.”
In an office at Sony, Jackson is at work on a box set documenting the 50th anniversary of three intense days of 1970 Presley sessions, and he’s also in the midst of supplying master tapes for Luhrmann’s biopic. “There’s been no more beautiful of a human being than that, right there,” he says, pointing to a box set with a photo of peak Fifties Presley on its cover. “It needs to remind people that, ‘Look, that guy existed once.’ ”