Mega-Attorney John Branca Talks Estates, Legacies and Streams Both Digital and Monetary

In September, John Branca and John McClain finalized one of the largest music publishing deals in history: The $750m sale of the Michael Jackson Estate’s 50% interest in Sony/ATV to Sony Corp. One of the most important business attorneys in the game, Branca is a genuine music guy—a sensibility shaped by his background as a musician—with a 360-degree understanding of the nuances of branding.

Yes, Jackson represents something of a pinnacle in his career spent mostly at Ziffren-Brittenham LLP, but Branca is also the lawyer/strategist behind the deal that reunited Carlos Santana with Clive Davis and resulted in Supernatural, and the movement of the Rolling Stones to Virgin from Sony. He is currently working on a new catalog deal for the Bee Gees and another deal for the Beach Boys, the band that was his first client back in 1978. “I love working with legacy artists,” Branca tells HITS. “It’s what I grew up with; it’s what I appreciate.”

As the co-executor of the Jackson estate, you are heavily involved in the multiple projects associated with him, the Cirque du Soleil shows, This Is It, the posthumous albums. Has your involvement with Jackson expanded what you do for clients, or is it just a highly visible example?
I haven’t been a traditional lawyer in the sense that we’re only there to review contracts. We always encourage our clients to have managers, but we are usually part of a strategic team that oversees touring, branding and various issues that may come up. David Lande and others at the firm work with managers and agents to make touring deals with Live Nation and AEG for clients like Justin Timberlake and Fleetwood Mac. Another example is the Rolling Stones, for whom we helped oversee and make the deals for the Steel Wheels Tour.

What John McClain and I really do with the Jackson estate is manage that brand. It’s not traditional legal work—we produced two shows with Cirque du Soleil: a touring show, Michael Jackson: THE IMMORTAL World Tour, and a permanent show in Las Vegas, Michael Jackson ONE. The tour is in the Top 5-grossing touring concert shows of all time and ONE has been one of the most successful shows in Las Vegas since it opened. We put out two new studio albums, the first with Rob Stringer, the second with L.A. Reid. What we do for the estate is not unlike what we do for an artist or a brand—we are involved with records, deal with touring and branding as well as overseeing various aspects of their career. It’s not different than the work we did when Michael was alive, in particular during the Thriller era, when Michael did not have a manager.

On your end, what do you see as the key to all the Jackson projects?
What we did with This Is It was to try to show the real Michael Jackson, the entertainer and not the tabloid sensation. It was really a rebranding effort.

Do you see this continuing with other legacy acts?
I think that what you have to do with legacy acts and estates is to reintroduce them to new generations, not to try to reinvent who they are. If you rep a legacy artist, whether it’s Led Zeppelin or [a lesser known act], the hardcore fans are there, but you have to keep reintroducing the artist to new audiences.

In the case of Michael, part of the equation was releasing unreleased material. First, will we see more from the Jackson vaults? And second, where do you draw the line for what should be released?
We have some incredibly exciting projects coming up in 2017, although we probably will not continue to release unreleased music. In the case of XSCAPE, the most recent release, L.A. Reid said he was only going to work on songs where Michael did complete vocals, because that showed he actually cared about the songs. And of course, that album produced the worldwide #1 hit track, “Love Never Felt So Good,” a duet with Michael and our client Justin Timberlake.

When we put out This Is It, some said, “Michael would never put this out. This is rehearsal footage.” We said, “We agree Michael wouldn’t have put this out when he was around because he would have finished it with a multi-camera shoot.” We wanted to show the world the real Michael Jackson. Thus, people really responded to it and it became the #1-grossing music documentary in history.

What about cases where a band is involved? Perhaps some members have died or are no longer active, but you’re representing the group.
It’s a matter of doing your best to maintain authenticity. You walk a fine line. I’m working with Barry Gibb, and Barry’s just put out a new album and there’s a tour and, of course, he sings Bee Gees songs since he was the lead singer. But Barry would never go out and present himself as the Bee Gees because of [his respect for] authenticity of who the Bee Gees were. Certain acts take account of that, but others don’t, and I think they suffer because of that.

You managed the Beach Boys for their 50th anniversary tour, which obviously introduced them to new fans and bolstered their standing. How do you take that result from a short window of time and extend its shelf life?
I co-managed The Beach Boys with Joe Thomas. I actually think they’re an underappreciated brand. Brian is certainly not underappreciated, but the Beach Boys are. I helped them get fair royalty rates on their back catalog, which I also did for artists John Fogerty and The Doors. And I helped Don Henley, and others, get their copyrights back.

Is streaming playing a big role in introducing those types of acts to new audiences?
YouTube helps because you can see the artist in their prime, in their heyday. Streaming helps, but branding is most important to continue to explain to people why they are important. A vehicle like This Is It, you realize this is one of the great artists of all time. It’s like a developing artist: You have to let people know who they are. Sometimes for an established artist, you have to remind people who the artist is.