The pattern is clear now: cash left behind is only the tip of the estate iceberg as a star’s death triggers waves of nostalgia buying. The unofficial Father of Rock could yet leave his heirs billionaires and it all starts with the first studio album in four decades.
Chuck Berry started playing in the early 1950s and it really took his death this weekend to get him to stop.
But with fans now clamoring to buy souvenir tickets for his last live appearance -- nearly three years ago -- it’s clear that death is only going to increase his ultimate earning power.
Once high-powered entertainment managers connect the dots, they’re going to offer the family a lot more than what Berry left behind.
Nostalgia may be the best “hidden asset” of all.
Life was a good beginning
Berry leaves maybe $15-$20 million behind, depending on how heavily inflated the estimates get.
That’s not a bad score. From all accounts, he built it up by working deep into old age -- he was still touring in his mid-80s and really never retired.
With cash coming in, he never really spent down his liquid assets the way he might have in a more conventional career. It was sometimes a punishing lifestyle, but it ensured a healthy inheritance for his wife and four kids.
In Missouri, wife Themetta can claim at least half of the cash and a half stake in the intellectual property. Odds are she’ll get a lot more if there was a will, since she was married to him a full 68 years and he was with her until the end.
By the way, the absence of an expensive divorce settlement ensured that his net worth could grow over the decades -- score millions for a strong lifelong bond!
In any event, the family fortune was sweat capital and nothing fancy, but as driven as he was, anything easier probably would have made him restless.
We see that a lot with self-made millionaires. They keep running the “family business” until they die and then the questions revolve around how to turn the enterprise into cash.
Close enough to immortal
That “succession planning” is where an estate like Chuck Berry’s gets extremely interesting.
He’s never going to write another song or play another show. But he was staggeringly prolific -- I see close to 1,400 songs under his name recorded close to 6,600 times by various people -- and unlike a lot of mid-century music pioneers, he kept the publishing rights.
Every time anyone records “Maybellene” or anything else in the vast catalog, his standing arrangement demanded 9-10 cents per unit sold. Licensing the actual tracks for media or advertising costs extra.
New management might revise those guidelines to what the market will bear, but it doesn’t take a lot of big tribute covers to swell the value of the estate as it is.
Meanwhile he was working on his first album of new material since 1979. Whether it was finished or not, package it as a memorial and it will probably sell like David Bowie’s final release.
Downloads of Berry’s back catalog are probably racing up the charts even as we speak. For Bowie, that wave of nostalgia generated about $700,000 to the estate in the first week. Prince was a slightly more complicated story due to his iron-fisted control over distribution, but in that scenario the estate probably swelled by $3-$4 million as a grieving world rediscovered his work.
That last album could do at least as well. And who knows what else is in the archives waiting to be catalogued and packaged?
Meanwhile those residual sales will keep trickling in as long as the world remembers his guitar lines and the copyright windows keep widening.
At this point, the catalog could become an annuity for Berry’s great-grandchildren’s grandchildren, resembling a dynastic trust in some ways.
Of course it’s not a trust. Berry always learned after getting burned by brushes with the law, and the fines he paid for not reporting cash income must have made him leery of anything that looked like a loophole.
But he seems to have been on good terms with all the kids, so their share of the cash flow should transfer without a lot of drama.
Calling the sharks
The real drama comes in when big entertainment muscle sees the opportunity that sprawling and iconic catalog represents.
Berry’s intellectual property could theoretically generate millions of dollars a year in licensing, merchandising, image and everything else that drives Michael Jackson’s or Jimi Hendrix’s estate.
While T shirts and posters may not have a long tail for Berry’s core audience -- the Boomers are busy downscaling -- there’s always the potential that a savvy brand manager will make him iconic for generations to come.
And that potential draws outside ambition. The Berry family may get an offer to sell their interest to a corporate entity willing and able to squeeze the assets.
Either way, that’s going to be the bulk of their ultimate inheritance. They had a bona fide rock star in their midst. When he was alive, he was sometimes one of the best-paid working musicians around.
In the grave, he has the chance to get paid like contemporary legends. No breaks, no vacations.
As long as the family finds the right organization to monetize the legacy, Chuck Berry’s ghost can keep rocking for decades to come.
And I bet the offers will start coming in mighty soon now.