Q&A: Zack O’Malley Greenburg, ‘Michael Jackson, Inc.’

MJ INC BOOK COVERThroughout his lifetime, books written about Michael Jackson have typically, and often repeatedly, covered the peaks and valleys and scandalous aspects of his life and career; however, for Forbes senior editor Zack O’Malley Greenburg, there is another side of Jackson worthy of exploring.

In Michael Jackson, Inc., through interviews and stories from several of Jackson’s personal and professional connections like Berry Gordy, Teddy Riley and Jackson family members, Greenburg uncovers, in intimate detail, why Michael Jackson the businessman deserves equal recognition as Michael Jackson the entertainer.

SoulTrain.com spoke with Greenburg to discuss his book that covers the highs and lows of many of Jackson’s key business moves, his influence on the entertainment industry at-large, and the intimate details and long-term effects of his acquisition of The Beatles’ music catalog.

SoulTrain.com: When you began to research and write this book, what was the big picture like for you? 

ZACK O GREENBURG

Zack O’Malley Greenburg

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: The inspiration for Michael Jackson, Inc. came out of covering the business of Michael Jackson for Forbes. After he died, I really started to notice that there was this incredible amount of cash being generated by everything related to the King of Pop and the more I followed the story, the more I realized that it was a result of business deals he made during his life, the moves he made, and the empire he built. It set me on the path of trying not to look at his financial life after death but look at his entire career from a business perspective, and the kind of moves he made and how it revolutionized entertainment.

SoulTrain.com: You spoke with many of his professional connections; how were you able to narrow it down to those included in the book? Was there anyone you wanted to talk to but couldn’t? 

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: It was definitely a tough process to whittle everything down into a manageable amount. There are so many people connected to his life, but I thought one of the important things to do was to condense and simplify this massive web of business connections he had over his entire life. I tried to hone in on the most relevant characters and streamline everything without sacrificing any of the specificity and detail. There are people I would’ve liked to talk to—Diana Ross is one. But Diana Ross and Quincy Jones have done so much on Michael and have talked about him so much, that I think they’re kind of tired of it! But I got to talk to a ton of people like Berry Gordy, Walter Yetnikoff, Pharrell Williams, Sheryl Crow and Jon Bon Jovi. There are a lot of juicy little anecdotes that haven’t been reported yet and I’m really excited for it to see the light of day.

SoulTrain.com: When it came to the fundamentals of business, he both directly and indirectly learned a lot from industry titans like Berry Gordy, of course, and John H. Johnson. Who would you say he pulled or drew from the most?

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: I think Berry Gordy was really his first inspiration when it came to business. Berry told me that when he was at Motown, he was kind of doing everything simultaneously; he’d be in the studio but he’d be taking calls all the time and doing business deals. And Michael—everybody told me—was just a sponge for knowledge. He’d soak up everything and sit there and watch and listen. Berry Gordy told me that would happen a lot and young Michael would be just sitting there watching and taking it all in. I think he learned a lot by osmosis in that way.

SoulTrain.com: You note that Smokey Robinson didn’t exactly deem Joe Jackson a businessman, at least in the technical sense of the word. Surely though, beginning with the Jackson 5 and up to a certain point, Michael Jackson picked up some business know-how from his father, no? 

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: His father was definitely persistent. And I think that was a really important part. He pushed his kids towards perfection and that’s something that definitely stuck with Michael, for better or worse. So for sure, I think there were lessons he got from his dad, too.

SoulTrain.com: The Jackson 5 and The Jacksons made several appearances on Soul Train; in addition, Michael was interviewed by Don Cornelius many times on the show. Given this, do you think that perhaps he also observed Cornelius who, of course, was also known for his outstanding business acumen?  

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: That’s a good point. To be honest, that’s an angle I didn’t get a chance to explore but that certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

SoulTrain.com: To this day, Michael Jackson’s purchase of The Beatles’ catalog remains one of the biggest and most often discussed business entertainment stories ever. In the book, you note how the air surrounding this acquisition became turbulent, with many, including Jackson himself, noting that not everyone was thrilled with his ownership of it. Can you speak on this? 

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: Michael Jackson’s purchase of the Beatles catalog for $47.5 million is probably one of the greatest deals made in the history of the music business. Today, his stake, which is half of the Sony/ATV entity, is probably worth about $2 billion. That’s such an incredible return on investment. The thing was, at the time, people thought he was crazy and this was one of the things I found in reporting for the book: A lot of his close advisors, really successful people in the music business, thought that he was paying an outrageous sum of money and this would never be a good deal for him. But the way he looked at it was that this was like a fine work of art—like a Picasso—and in his mind, you couldn’t really put a value on something like that. It was priceless. He said these were the greatest songs of all time and he was going to get them. He made a note to [his attorney] John Branca who was negotiating with the Australian billionaire who owned the Beatles catalog—the note said, “John, please let’s not negotiate; it’s MY CATALOG.” I think that was really a turning point; not just for his business career but for entertainment, as well, where you see entertainers sort of start to go essentially from performing to being owners and employers.

SoulTrain.com: With the purchase of the Beatles catalog being a very major move, how would you say it impacted his other business ventures? 

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: Subsequent to that, he did a lot of things in the late 80s and early 90s, like launching his own clothing line, shoe line and record label. These things didn’t necessarily take off for him, but earned him tens of millions of dollars anyway, and it really paved the way for the likes of Diddy, Jay-Z and acts like that to have gone on to make those kinds of things almost a prerequisite for success in the music world. A lot of that dates back to Michael Jackson taking the idea of monetizing fame and completely revolutionizing it and coming up with all of these different ways artists could prosper from their celebrity.

SoulTrain.com: The book notes how Michael Jackson’s showman side and businessman side intersected when it came to his perfectionist mentality. From a business standpoint, would you say that way of thinking was a help? A hindrance?  

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: I think it’s a little bit of both. When you’re driven to be the best all the time, particularly when the standard is one you’ve already set (like with Thriller), it can sometimes be very hard to top it. By definition, it’s nearly impossible to top the greatest of anything; I mean, it’s the greatest for a reason. Thriller was the greatest selling album of all time and it’s certainly an incredible work, musically. He was obsessed with topping that from both standpoints and I think it was really damaging to him when the sales figures and the reviews for his albums weren’t quite up to that standard. I think he was very consumed with the desire to top Thriller in all possible aspects and I think that led to him sometimes delaying albums to perfect them, which in turn had an impact on some of his outside business ventures that were supposed to be picked up with the launch of these albums. I think that was definitely a theme throughout his career.

SoulTrain.com: From his die-hard to casual fans, it seems not everyone knew about his corporate savvy. Why do you think his business sense wasn’t acknowledged like his showmanship was?

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: I think the negative publicity around him later in his life, starting with the [sexual molestation] allegations in the early 90s and going forward through to the end of his life, really overshadowed all the good things. Particularly, from a financial standpoint, I think because the media was so fixated on his financial woes and in many cases, was kind of overseeing them, that it really wiped away the truth, which was that he was quite a savvy businessman. The only reason why he was able to rack up such a large amount of debt was that he had such a vast amount of assets and was worth so much on paper because of his business savvy. He had the collateral that he needed to take out those loans; he really was like a corporation in and of himself.  There are plenty of corporations out there that are worth about half as much as their assets and I think mainstream media isn’t used to that and weren’t able to grasp that in their conceptualization of him and his career.

SoulTrain.com: You detail how involved Michael Jackson was with the hip-hop community—how he often had conversations with the likes of 50 Cent and Nas—and even how R&B and hip-hop producer Rodney Jerkins learned from him how to buy catalogs. Can you expound on his connection to hip-hop? 

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: I think that’s another one of the things that comes out in this book—Michael Jackson’s impact on hip-hop. A lot of the guys I talked to—including Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, 50 Cent, Nas and Diddy—all these guys will tell you that they grew up idolizing Michael Jackson and they will also tell you that he was up on every kind of music, in particularly, hip-hop, right up until the very end of his life. Diddy actually told me Michael Jackson knew hip-hop like he was born in the South Bronx in the 80s. He lived and breathed it, from the music to the dancing. He even featured The Notorious B.I.G. on HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I in ‘95 before he had really even ascended to the heights that he eventually did. He knew what was going on, he paid attention, and I fully believe that if he were around today, making new music, he would have continued to work with some of the big hip-hop acts. At the time of his death, he was working with Swizz Beatz and he was having conversations with Pharrell and Nas. I think hip-hop was a huge part of Michael Jackson.

SoulTrain.com: Through researching or writing this book, did anything surprise you along the way?

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: I think one of the things I didn’t quite realize was just how focused Michael Jackson became on making a film career for himself in Hollywood. We started to see that with The Wiz, obviously, and then going forward with Captain EO and so forth. Around the time the allegations really turned his career upside down in the early 90s, he was well into a couple of huge movie deals. He had a couple of things in development that were going to be really big and there are some details on that in the book. I fully believe he would’ve accomplished it if it hadn’t been for the allegations because after that happened, he just became somebody who the studios didn’t really want to associate with. I really think that he could’ve had sort of an “Elvis-like” aspect to his career, as far as on the screen goes.

SoulTrain.com: What would you like readers to take away from the book?  

Zack O’Malley Greenburg: I want people to get that Michael Jackson was not only the greatest entertainer of all time but that he was really as much a revolutionary when it came to the business of entertainment as he was when it came to the performance aspect.

Michael Jackson, Inc. launches June 3; for more information, visit Amazon.com.

—LaShawn Williams

LaShawn Williams is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former Arts & Culture Editor for Gapers Block. She is an arts and entertainment enthusiast with immense love for stand-up comedy, music and dance. Follow her on Twitter at @MsWilliamsWorld.

4 Comments

  1. Tabinformed says:

    Great article. I have been looking forward to this book for a long time and have had it pre-ordered since last fall. I regularly read Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s work on Forbes.com. He has a way of telling a great story back up by factual research and makes business concepts easy to understand. Michael Jackson’s business acumen is often overlooked. He was a true leader that was able to recognize the great qualities in the people he worked with and helped them to tap into those qualities to be even better. Yes, there were missteps and disappointments but the foundation of his brand was laid through genius and incredible hard work. Many of today’s monetarily successful artists have learned from Jackson.

    Michael Jackson’s body of work and brand is so phenomenal that even 5 years after his death, he has 4 albums on the Billboard 200 chart with one of the them currently #1 worldwide, 4 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 with one of the them at #14, Billie Jean, which is 32 years old plus 6 videos in the top 100. The man and his brand are so well loved that he sold out 50 concerts at the O2 Arena in 2009 in record time and continues to reach people through two incredibly successful Cirque du Soleil shows. Finally, an author is coming along to discuss how all that magic and cash was created

  2. MarkRBentley says:

    I am very interested in hearing more about how Jackson’s intelligence, vision, drive, and imagination made him the first artist-turned-mogul, so I’m going to read this book. Creative genius and business savvy don’t usually go together…or do they? It seems Jackson often had a way of turning conventional wisdom on its head.

  3. LaShawn Williams says:

    Thank you, Stephen. The book REALLY IS a fantastic read. While business, numbers, publishing, et al, are all explored, it is done in an entertaining and engaging way. :-)

  4. Stephen McMillian says:

    Great interview LaShawn!! I consider myself the biggest MJ fan in the world and I always enjoying reading unknown facts about this man’s genius. Can’t wait to get the book!

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