Max Décharné

The musical gravy train: Leaving The Building, by Eamonn Forde, reviewed

Managing the legacies of musicians after their death is a complex – and lucrative – business

Elvis Presley in 1956. The manner in which his estate monetised his legacy set the benchmark for the future. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Musicians cast a long cultural shadow. Politicians may wield considerable power in their time, but although today’s young people are still generally aware of John Lennon, they are less likely to have heard of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, despite the fact that he was running the country during the year the Beatles first came to international prominence. This is not the place to discuss the relative merits of writing ‘I Am the Walrus’ as against introducing the Resale Prices Bill (1964), but try offering T-shirts of both gentlemen on eBay today, and see which one sells.

While the recordings, compositions, the images and even the signatures of certain deceased popular musicians can be monetised and marketed long after they have gone to join the great after-show party in the sky, managing and policing their legacies is a complex job, requiring teams of lawyers and other specialists. ‘The paradoxical compulsion at the very core of music estates,’ says Eamonn Forde in this entertaining and wide-ranging exploration of the subject, ‘is that they must keep the dead alive. At their very best, they defy science; at their very worst, they are Weekend at Bernie’s.’

Eric Morecambe once remarked that ‘where there’s a will, there’s relatives’

Eric Morecambe once remarked that ‘where there’s a will, there’s relatives’, and more than a few musicians have died leaving multiple potential beneficiaries, such as three or four ex-spouses and a veritable football team of children. Further confusion may be sown by a conflicting profusion of wills, as in the case of Aretha Franklin, or, like Prince and Bob Marley, no will at all. Lengthy court cases between interested parties are therefore very common, often sabotaging attempts to generate income from the assets in question.

When Elvis finally left the building in 1977, the public reaction of his manager recalls that of the widow in The Importance of Being Earnest, whose hair ‘turned quite gold from grief’.

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