Keep on Earning in the Free World: The Five Largest Artist Estates

These artists may be gone, but their estates live on, and on, and on...
July 20, 2018

Artists never really die. Through their music, they can live on forever.

In fact, some of our most sorely missed musicians make quite a bit more posthumously than when they were alive and performing. The following list collects some of the best-selling musician estates of all time and investigates the various creative ways these icons ensured their fortunes would stay profitable for years to come.  

1. Michael Jackson: $1 billion

The King of Pop is still on top, even almost a decade after his untimely death at age 50. Last year was a particularly profitable one for the estate of the ex-Jackson 5 front man, pulling in a whopping $75 million. that's more than current mega-acts like Adele, Metallica, Garth Brooks, and Elton John, just to name a few.

Jackson’s estate, though reported to be bankrupt at the time of his death, has since raked in hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. These economic windfalls involved the estate continuing on almost as if the pop star were still alive.

For example, in 2010, they signed a $200 million record deal with Sony to release 10 albums of various Jackson material, including last year’s Scream. There was the Immortal tour and the One tour with Cirque du Soleil that netted hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course selling its remaining share of the Sony/ATV publishing for $750 million and retaining around 10% of the EMI Publishing catalog, including quite a few of The Beatles’ perpetually gainful tunes, also helps.

The King of Pop is gone but certainly not forgotten.

2.  John Lennon: $800 million

Speaking of The Fab Four, John Lennon is only a couple hundred million behind Jackson, at $800 million. In the U.S. alone, the Beatles have sold about 177 million albums and 1.6 billion singles. Worldwide, they’re believed to have reached somewhere around 600 million albums.

The estate continues to participate in the earnings created through Apple Corps, the holding company that manages The Beatles rights and products (including licensing music to TV/Film, videogames, and Cirque du Soleil's "Love").

But Lennon's solo estate also creates its own earnings. His wife, Yoko Ono, turned her husband’s estate into a behemoth. How did she make his already impressive wealth into a well-oiled business machine pulling in around $12 million per year?

The answer is simple: cattle and real estate. Sometime in 1977, the couple, under Ono’s advice, bought a herd of 122 Regis Holstein cows, 10 bulls, breeding equipment, and real estate in Delaware County, New York to house their livestock. They also bought a mansion in Palm Springs and, of course, their famous Upper West side digs in the Dakota, which will, no doubt, go for quite a handsome sum whenever Ono decides to move out.

Imagine no possessions, indeed, John.

3. Elvis: $300 million

Another king found his way onto this list—Elvis Presley. The Mississippi-born crooner left us in 1977 but that didn’t stop his estate from pulling in an impressive $35 million last year, a regular figure for Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc.

Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’s daughter (who was married to Michael Jackson in the mid-1990s), sold 85% of her father’s estate back in 2016 to SFX Entertainment for $100 million.

Elvis’s estate still has its hands in a number of profitable markets though. The King sells around 1 million albums every year, totaling 1 billion worldwide. Beyond his music career, he appeared in 31 movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with popular songs like “Love Me Tender” included on the soundtracks, which boosted his revenue. Last but not least is Graceland, which is still owned by Lisa Marie and remains a popular tourist destination, with more than 600,000 people visiting each year. Music, movies, tourism, and, of course, the kitsch.

Forty-plus years after his death, Elvis is still everywhere.

4. David Bowie: $230 million

At the time of his death, David Bowie was worth an estimated $230 million, split between his wife Iman an his two children. Considering he pulled in a reported $9.5 million in 2017 alone, chances are his net worth will only increase with time.  

Long before his death Bowie launched the infamous and ingenious idea of Bowie Bonds, which had a major impact on The White Duke's estate to this day. Bowie earned $55 million through the sale of the 10-year bonds, secured by his royalties and copyrights. The bonds were scooped up by Prudential Insurance Co., who earned the promised 7.9% return. With the proceeds, Bowie bought himself out of a bad management deal, which set up his subsequent success. His catalog alone is estimated to be worth about $100 million today.

Ziggy Stardust was a savvy businessman!

5. Bob Marley: $130 million

The Bob Marley estate probably has the most diverse portfolio of all of our contenders. Fans know Jamaica’s most famous celebrity for his catchy and politically aware reggae tunes, but the Marley estate’s wealth also comes from a variety of Marley branded products.

There’s the Marley Beverage Company, which makes the One Drop coffee line, flavored Marley Yerba Matte tea, and a line of sparkling waters called Mellow Mood. There’s also Marley Apparel, a clothing brand designed by Cedella Marley, Bob’s eldest daughter, and Marley Natural, which sells marijuana and related paraphernalia in cities where it has become legal. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also Marley for Kids, which are children’s books aimed to reach budding Marley fans.

With about $21 million coming in every year, there doesn’t seem to be any signs the Marley dynasty is slowing down soon.

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