His baby sister said it best via an old Joni Mitchell sample in one of her hits from the late ‘90s: “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” Now, nine months after Michael Jackson’s sudden death at age 50, Sony, his longtime label, is ready to cash in on the music the superstar left behind. Of course, this move is nothing new. Several pop artists have sold more records and made more money dead than alive: Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin chief among them.
But Michael, whose record sales and business contracts set unprecedented benchmarks when he was here among us, continues to break records after his death. Sony just announced that the King of Pop’s estate has signed a $200 million guaranteed contract for 10 projects over seven years. The deal, good through 2017, could be worth up to $250 million if certain conditions are met. An album of previously unreleased material is supposed to hit stores in November, just in time for the holidays. Other future projects may include a DVD compilation of his classic videos, a video game and a reissue of perhaps his most satisfying album, 1979’s Off the Wall.
This new deal comes as no surprise, given that Michael has sold more than 31 million albums worldwide since his death in June. And it’s not a stretch to say that even after the man closed his eyes for the last time, he has helped to resuscitate an ailing industry. That was certainly the case in 1982 when Thriller, the biggest blockbuster album of all time, hit the streets and sold more than 20 million copies within the first year. The industry was in a sad state then, as record sales lagged and pop was undecided about where to go. Then came Michael, the former Motown prince, with a sound that braided together all the loose strands of the previous decade: disco, punk and funk. His pop amalgamation was fresh, vivacious, a sonic revolution. Also at the same time, he turned the music video into an art form just as MTV was born. And when the cable station threw shade at videos from people of color, it was Michael and mighty Sony (then known as CBS) who kicked down the door.
But although it’s nice to see Michael’s music benefit his estate so quickly, there’s something exciting and dissatisfying about the prospect of so many future projects. It’s exciting that longtime fans will get to hear so much of the music he left behind. Michael was a tireless recording artist whose work was precisely cataloged, so there’s probably a goldmine of recordings going way back. But the superstar was also a notorious perfectionist who knew better than any producer what he wanted and how he wanted it all to sound. So without Michael’s final say, one can’t help but wonder about the quality of these recordings. Surely there was a reason they were left behind in the first place. They may be skeletal works in progress that need more polish and focus, a little som’thin-som’thin that only Michael could have given them had he the time. Perhaps they’re frustrating, listless recordings that go nowhere.
Or these tapes may be his greatest work. Who knows? But there are always those nagging questions haunting the mind when listening to a dead artist’s unreleased material: Would he have done something different? Did he mean for that note to be there? Would he have approved this final mix?
Of course we will never know. But at least we will get to listen to the man’s last works, a wealth of material that will undoubtedly reveal new layers of an artist who was plucked, stripped and torn apart so many times when he was alive.
WATCH MSNBC’S TOURE DISCUSS JACKSON’S UNRELEASED MUSIC: