The price of being Michael Jackson

No matter what one’s personal opinion is of Michael Jackson, most would agree that his untimely death on June 25 was shocking and unexpected. While newspapers, magazines and blogs scramble to uncover the hazy circumstances of Jackson’s demise, fans worldwide are mourning the loss of a pop icon.

Under the banner, “His Music Will Live Forever,” has received over 400,000 comments from fans posting their memories of the singer.

But amidst the public’s sadness and thoughtful retrospection, there is an odious element brewing in the aftermath of his death. It has much to do with one of the recurring themes of Jackson’s public profile: money.

Born August 29, 1958 to a large blue-collar family in Gary, Indiana, Jackson and his siblings were pushed to perform by their physically abusive father, Joe. “If you didn’t do it the right way, he would tear you up, really get you,” recalled Jackson in a 2003 interview.

As the story goes, the Jackson 5 became wildly successful in both a commercial and an artistic sense. In 1971, Jackson launched his now-legendary solo career. Between 1979 and 1995, Jackson recorded five of the world’s bestselling albums: Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), Bad (1987), Dangerous (1991), and HIStory (1995). Thriller remains the world’s bestselling album of all time, with over 100 million copies sold.

With his passing, Jackson’s “stock” has risen exponentially; suddenly retailers are seeing a tremendous demand for his music or even anything bearing his likeness. The first 50 shows of Jackson’s “This Is It” tour were scheduled to take place in London’s O2 arena, and his death has left concert promoter AEG Live with an unexpected opportunity to recoup some of the estimated $85 million losses. The event’s 750,000 ticket holders have been given the option of either a full refund, or to receive the ticket—a holographic card designed by Jackson himself—as a souvenir.

“The world lost a kind soul who just happened to be the greatest entertainer the world has ever known. Since he loved his fans in life, it is incumbent upon us to treat them with the same reverence and respect after his death,” said AEG chief executive Randy Phillips.

Ironically, what Phillips neglected to mention is that the ticket was intended by Jackson to be a souvenir for the fans in the first place.

Should fans choose the ticket over the refund, the cash would be used to reimburse the company for the cost of promotion, meaning that AEG Live could stand to make money from a concert that never happened. It also plans to recoup lost revenue by releasing a DVD of the singer’s final rehearsal.

A significant portion of the would-be concertgoers is expected to choose the souvenir ticket, but an exact figure is difficult to ascertain. In a morbid comedy of probability described in The Times Online by mathematician Christopher Paley, the value of the souvenir ticket is dictated by number of fans that choose it over the refund. If most of them take AEG’s refund, and refuse the option of keeping the ticket, the unusable tickets will likely become valuable collector’s items. But if most of the 750,000 tickets are in fact distributed to the buyers, then quite a few fans will have paid an upwards of $100 for a small piece of fancy paper.

Tickets aside, there is no denying that Jackson memorabilia is suddenly a hot item. Los Angeles auction house Julien’s auctioned off some of the performer’s things just one day after his death, much to the dismay of fans. Three weeks ago, a signed Jackson 5 album was expected to fetch about $400 to $600. It sold at the June 26 auction for $33,750.

Closer to home in a Redmond bookstore, customers called incessantly last Tuesday to inquire about magazines featuring the deceased singer.

“I better have Michael Jackson in this box,” joked one employee while unpacking a new shipment. When the issues finally arrived, they sold out in less than 24 hours.

While some are searching for details in Jackson’s sudden and mysterious death, many anticipate keeping the issue as a piece of cultural history. Either way, everyone from the bookstore to the magazine’s publisher stand to profit from the frenzy surrounding Jackson’s demise.

The issue of money was an ever-present theme in Jackson’s troubled life.

“You are talking about a guy who could make $500 million a year if he puts his mind to it,” said Tom Barrack Jr., chairman of Colony Capital, the company that now owns Jackson’s debt for Neverland. “There are very few individual artists who are multibillion-dollar businesses. And he is one,” Barrack said to the Los Angeles Times.

Despite his tremendous earning capability, Jackson left behind a legacy of financial chaos. His lavish spending had been documented for years, earning him the reputation as being “a millionaire who spends like a billionaire,” and spending up to $30 million a year more than he was bringing in, according to an accountant. To a person like Jackson, who had been described as a “regressed 10 year old” by a psychologist, the value of money was difficult to grasp.

According to sources cited by the Wall Street Journal, Jackson had accumulated a debt of around $500 million. Though his assets, including the Neverland Ranch, song copyrights, and a stake in the Beatles’ song catalog, total around $1 billion, he had borrowed millions of dollars against these investments in order to avoid insolvency.

However, money could never alter the public’s perception of the singer, and sources close to Jackson say that he never recovered from the staggering price of a damaged reputation.

To many industry insiders, the London shows were his last chance at financial salvation. To Jackson, they were his last chance at rectifying his tarnished image. If they had been successful, the London shows would have been the first of a worldwide, three and a half year tour. Titled “This Is It,” the comeback was meant to symbolize his artistic rebirth and determination to leave the sordid stories of the past behind.

Although the brazen profit chasing seems distasteful, it is the typical aftermath of a superstar’s death, especially since Jackson had transcended the role of musician and had become a commodity unto himself. Jackson’s legacy is dichotomous: on the one hand, he was a modern day goldmine. Equal parts child star, multi-platinum recording artist, circus freak, and mysterious recluse, he had all the intriguing elements upon which tabloid celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan forge entire careers. But on the other, he had a genuine impact on millions of fans.

Most people surmise that Jackson had deep emotional wounds that could not be fixed by any amount of money or adoration. It’s ironic that after it has all ended for Jackson, his legacy will be a limitless source of merchandising potential for whomever can attain (legally or illegally) the opportunity to sell his image to his legions of fans.

But for as much as Jackson was a profitable pop sensation, his monetary value as a cultural commodity seemed to matter little to him on a personal level.

As Jackson once said, “Even at home, I’m lonely. I sit in my room sometimes and cry. It’s so hard to make friends… I sometimes walk around the neighborhood at night, just hoping to find someone to talk to. But I just end up coming home.”