- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

NEW YORK

Music lovers weren’t the only ones drawn to the King of Pop. Wooed by his global fame and earning power, a bevy of financial firms ponied up tens of millions of dollars to finance the singer’s luxe lifestyle and kick-start his troubled career.

Now they’re in line with other creditors and business partners awaiting word on the state of Michael Jackson’s murky financial empire. Financial firms including Colony Capital LLC, Fortress Investment Group and Barclays Bank PLC poured tens of millions into the singer over the years. The cash enabled Mr. Jackson, a notorious binge spender, to maintain a lavish lifestyle befitting a global pop star.

However, the potential peril of owning a portfolio tied to an eccentric entertainer became apparent with the singer’s unexpected death at age 50. It also highlighted Wall Street’s fascination with the entertainment industry - a trend that could cool depending upon how much Mr. Jackson’s creditors manage to recoup from their investments.

“There’s always been a nexus between the worlds of celebrity and finance, and it’s only grown in recent years,” said Ian Peck, president of Art Capital Group, which specializes in making loans to celebrities and rich clients who put up artwork as collateral.

Mr. Jackson’s lenders seemed to “get a kick out of having a big celebrity as a client” despite his checkered finances and 2005 child-molestation trial, Mr. Peck said. The pop star also benefited from the same credit boom that ensnared ordinary Americans and led to the financial meltdown.

“Today, I don’t think he’d be able to obtain the same kinds of loans,” Mr. Peck said.

Mr. Jackson died June 25 in Los Angeles of what his family said was cardiac arrest. According to financial documents obtained by Associated Press, he claimed $567.6 million in assets as of March 31, 2007, including his Neverland Ranch and his share of the Sony/ATV Music Publishing catalog, which holds the rights to songs by the Beatles, Bob Dylan and other artists.

The documents also show that Mr. Jackson had debt of $331 million. Even so, his singular earning power and worldwide appeal seemed to make him a safe bet to lenders, who sometimes seemed starstruck.

“You are talking about a guy who could make $500 million a year if he puts his mind to it,” billionaire investor Thomas Barrack, owner of Colony Capital, told the Los Angeles Times a month before Mr. Jackson’s death. “There are very few individual artists who are multibillion-dollar businesses. And he is one.”

Such faith in Mr. Jackson didn’t always come cheap.

In March 2008, the singer defaulted on a $23 million loan to Fortress and nearly had to give up Neverland, the 2,500-acre Santa Barbara property he had used to secure the loan. Mr. Barrack’s Colony Capital stepped in at the last minute and agreed to cover the owed amount. Mr. Jackson later signed Neverland over to a joint venture between himself and an affiliate of Colony Capital. Mr. Jackson got $35 million in the deal - money Colony hoped to recover from the eventual refurbishing and sale of Neverland.

Colony also reportedly was involved in plotting Mr. Jackson’s planned comeback, which included 50 sold-out concert dates in London that were to begin this month. The shows, which were being staged by promoter AEG Live, brought in about $85 million in ticket sales, according to Billboard magazine. AEG says it will offer full refunds on the tickets.

Colony’s main business is investing in real estate, non-performing loans and distressed assets. It has invested more than $39 billion in more than 8,500 assets since 1991, according to its Web site. Neither Colony nor Fortress, an investment company with $26.5 billion in assets, would comment.

Mr. Jackson wasn’t the first music superstar to woo Wall Street.

In 1997, glam rocker David Bowie raised $55 million upfront by offering “Bowie Bonds” that paid interest from royalties on some of his past hits. The bonds, which provided a 7.9 percent return over 10 years, were snapped up by insurer Prudential Insurance Co. of America and helped usher in the era of asset-backed securities.

This so-called securitization of intellectual property rights was followed by other entertainers, including James Brown and the Isley Brothers.

Wall Street also has had some notable missteps with the music industry, including the private equity firm Terra Firma’s 2007 buyout of the recording company EMI Group PLC. The label has struggled amid the decline of CD sales, the rise of digital music downloading and the departure of major acts such as Radiohead and the Rolling Stones.

“Unquestionably, Wall Street has gotten into the entertainment industry. In some cases, it has been smart, and in others not so much,” said John Scher, a New York concert promoter who put on three Jackson shows in the 1980s.

For other investors, the glare of celebrities such as Mr. Jackson is simply too much.

Art Capital Group was approached by Mr. Jackson for financing years ago but turned down the singer, Mr. Peck said. The firm was concerned about how to value Mr. Jackson’s proposed collateral, which included a collection of 19th-century paintings by Adolphe Bouguereau. The French old master was known for his nude portraits - including many featuring cherubic-faced children.

“Frankly, it was just too intense a spotlight for us,” Mr. Peck said.

Others say Mr. Jackson’s death and the massive interest it has spawned only makes the star more bankable.

David Reeder, vice president of GreenLight, a Los Angeles firm that handles intellectual property rights for celebrity estates, predicted Mr. Jackson’s estate is sitting on a cash cow of reissued and unreleased music, merchandise and endorsements like those seen with late actors Steve McQueen or Lucille Ball.

“There’s a huge opportunity to leverage his brand going forward,” Mr. Reeder said.

Another sign of Mr. Jackson’s investment value is the lofty prices being fetched for the pop star’s memorabilia. The day after he died, 21 items sold at auction for $205,000, including a painting of Mickey Mouse that Mr. Jackson made as a child, which went for $25,000.

“From a collector’s standpoint, he’s a very good investment. He’s already at the level of Elvis Presley,” said Darren Julien, principal of Julien Auctions, which has overseen several auctions of Jackson items.

Another big advantage for Mr. Jackson’s creditors: They no longer will incur the risk from the singer’s lavish spending habits, which over the years have included buying a chimpanzee named Bubbles and a hyperbaric chamber.

“The sad irony is that the estate will likely be run in a very profitable way from here forward,” Mr. Peck said. “There’s not the X-factor of somebody going out doing crazy things.”

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