Everything dead is new again: UMG buys Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra

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Universal Music Group recently signed deals giving it control over much of Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra's catalogs and likeness rights, Variety reports. Universal will become the official multiyear licensee for 38 albums and 14 DVDs by Ol' Blue Eyes, and the exclusive manufacturer and distributor of merchandise for the King of Pop.

In an industry always struggling to find the latest thing, UMG is exploiting an increasingly lucrative strategy. Living stars' private lives and public problems often get in the way of business, but dead artists offer a known, popular product, with no drama. And once a celebrity dies, his or her likeness and output can be endlessly manipulated for maximum financial effect.
In Jackson's case, the two months since his death have been among the most lucrative of his career. Between June 25, the day he died, and July 16, Jackson sold 2.3 million albums in the U.S. and nine million worldwide. Amazon.com reported that it received more orders for the Gloved One's albums and MP3s in the 24 hours after his death than it had over its 11-year history.

Death can also vastly increase the value of an artist's likeness. In life, Jackson was a tragic figure, his later years tinged with disturbing rumors, physically destructive surgery and drugs, and an increasing inability to connect with a listening public that had long since moved on. For his fans, Jackson had long been a guilty pleasure: watching the shambles of his personal life made any enjoyment of his work bittersweet. Even the radiant happiness shining through his earlier work is tinged with the darkness of the longterm costs of his childhood fame.

But death has a tendency to erase darker themes from the public memory. A visit from the Grim Reaper restored Elvis Presley from a bloated, washed-up Vegas novelty act to the sleek, leather-clad sex god he once was. For Jackson, the metamorphosis promises to be similarly startling, shifting him from being a damaged cautionary tale to, once again, a pure, glowing personification of innocent love and artistic joy.

The same can be said of Sinatra. While the Chairman of the Board was never as physically iconic as Jackson, his forceful I'm-gonna-pop-you-bozos persona was appealingly, elegantly sleazy. In life, he veered from PG-13 to hard R, combining bullying, intense sexuality and more than a touch of hard living. In death, however, there need be no grotesque domination of Mia Farrow, no unsavory February-December relationships, no embarrassing tales of mob connections. The post-death Sinatra can be all romance: a skinny kid with a velvet voice and a lot of moxie.

It will be interesting to see what UMG tries to do with Jackson and Sinatra's likeness rights. Legal standards have given licensees the freedom to endlessly manipulate dead performers, but 1990's-era laws have constrained what companies are capable of doing. Even so, with T-shirts to be made and bobbleheads to be sold, it's easy to imagine how a newly redeemed Jackson and a family-friendsly Sinatra can be pushed on a hungry American public.

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