Money From Heaven

Maintaining the legacies of our favourite stars is a painstaking but essential task. Charles Donovan talks to author Eamonn Forde and the family of Joe Strummer to discover what goes into running a great music estate

By Charles Donovan

February 13 2023

In 2001, Forbes magazine began publishing its ghoulish “Highest Paid Dead Celebrities” list – a hit parade of the expired film, music, literary, and creative stars bringing in the most money from beyond the grave.

Since then, music stars have been the list’s over-represented heavy-hitters, with Michael Jackson, seemingly impervious to scandal, chalking up ten years at Number 1. Bob Marley, Prince and John Lennon are annually recurring names, while some artists dip in and out: David Bowie ruptured the chart just once (2016).

The list is the jumping-off point for Eamonn Forde’s riveting book, Leaving The Building – The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates. Forde has picked over music-biz carcasses before, memorably documenting a British music label’s sad, avoidable demise with The Final Days of EMI (Omnibus Press) in 2019. For Leaving The Building, he conducted more than one hundred interviews – with social media companies; record labels; heirs; publishers; hologram companies;
branding consultants; and lawyers – to focus on what he calls the “dual dynamic” of music estates.

“They have to bring in money and try to keep the artist relevant,” Forde explains. “It’s a strange and unknown world, because it’s not really written about, or only when something bad’s happening, such as when heirs are fighting or when no one’s left a will.”

Michael Jackson’s estate produced $75 million in 2021 from the enduring appeal of his music and merchandise; projects such as Joe Strummer’s posthumous album, Assembly, help fund his foundation
Michael Jackson’s estate produced $75 million in 2021 from the enduring appeal of his music and merchandise; projects such as Joe Strummer’s posthumous album, Assembly, help fund his foundation

Piecing together the story of how estates thrive or decline meant treading carefully, especially when approaching the janitors of the Michael Jackson and James Brown legacies, though he has praise for the former: “Jackson was half a billion dollars in debt when he died, and within two or three years John Branca [co-executor] had turned it into the most lucrative celebrity estate in the world.”

Although it’s still near the top of the Forbes chart, the Jackson estate’s best year was 2016 when, thanks to the sale of its 50 per cent share of Sony ATV, it turned over $850 million. “Phenomenal – no estate is ever going to come anywhere near making that sort of money in a year,” Forde remarks.

At the other end of the spectrum, Forde discovered that the iniquities for which showbiz is so notorious don’t miraculously evaporate upon an artist’s death. Money generated by the estate of Marc Bolan (of T Rex) has for decades flowed into two off-shore holding companies, created to enable Bolan to avoid the 1970s British super-tax, but with the long-term consequence that his widow, soul legend Gloria Jones, and son, Rolan, lived unjustly penurious lives for many years. “A similar thing applies to the Michael Hutchence estate,” Forde explains. “There’s a lot of really heartbreaking things like that where the, let’s just say, ‘tax efficient’ arrangements the artists were involved in setting up have terrible unforeseen consequences.”

One of the better guiding principles of estate management that Forde encountered was from the team behind Nick Drake, the sensitive, mysterious singer/songwriter whose work for Island Records was flatly ignored during his lifetime but is now popular, thanks to the careful guidance of his sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, and her right-hand man, Cally Callomon: “Do what the artist would have done.” This way, most pitfalls – naff merchandise, dodgy biopics, tacky hologram shows, shoddily conceived reissues and remixes, product glut – can be avoided.

Strummer with wife Lucinda Garland
Strummer with wife Lucinda Garland

This approach certainly chimes with Lucinda Garland, widow of Joe Strummer and now nearing her
third decade as guardian of his legacy. “I keep an eye out for anything I feel would damage Joe’s image or reputation, for bootlegs, and for people using his name for their own purposes,” she explains.

Garland found herself holding the reins of the Strummer estate at a tragically premature juncture, when her husband died of a heart attack at 50 in December 2002. Strummer was halfway through an album with his group, The Mescaleros, and it fell to Garland to bring it to fruition while grieving. “It was heavy for all of us that loved him. Whether you’re a fan or family or wife, when something is so sudden, it’s just a shock. Where I was lucky was that I had amazing friends. Somebody like Damien Hirst, for example. He saw the open-sided barns with Joe’s
lyrics and belongings. He saw his studio and he dismantled it and put it away.
And he started the archive for me, along with Gordon McHarg III [artist and Clash/Strummer
archivist]. I had friends who took on the mantle of preserving Joe’s legacy so that I could grieve.”

Garland with Damien Hirst, who helped to archive Strummer’s work;
Garland with Damien Hirst, who helped to archive Strummer’s work;

Steering an album to completion (Streetcore, 2003) was cathartic and illuminating. Garland discovered that her husband had recorded a duet with Johnny Cash, produced by Rick Rubin. “He very sweetly gave it to me so it could go on the album. I would never pretend to be any kind of musician, but I saw the way Joe worked and I got to know the way he thought. You don’t live with Joe for so many years and not learn a little bit about how to put an album together. So I didn’t feel like a fraud going into the studio with Martin [Slattery; keyboards/guitars] and Scott [Shields; bass/drums]. I felt I had a right to be there and that I had to honour Joe and his work. My big thing was getting the running order right. It was definitely painful, especially hearing Joe’s spoken voice on the out-takes, talking through the monitors. But there was nobody else who was going to see it through with Joe’s vision rather than their own vision.”

Garland takes pains to mention the numerous sources of support she was able to call on as the project took form; not only the Mescaleros band-members but also punk stars including Patti Palladin of Seventies duo, Snatch. Their collective efforts were rewarded with exuberant reviews and a higher UK chart placing than for any previous album The Mescaleros had recorded.

Since then, Garland has overseen additional collections, including Joe Strummer 001 (Ignition
Records, 2018) and Assembly (2021), which came out on the late George Harrison’s fabled imprint, Dark Horse Records. But closest to her heart are the efforts she’s made to honour Strummer’s humanitarianism through the Joe Strummer Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation nurturing young musicians and supporting music and the arts.

“When Joe died and there was an outpouring of grief, we were stuck round a table thinking, ‘We’ve got to do something’,” Garland recalls. Strummer had been ahead of the curve in his commitment to carbon-neutral living, so Garland’s first initiative was to plant trees on Skye, forming what’s known today as Rebel’s Wood. Then came the idea of a charity to help musicians. “Joe had no musical training or experience. He was a busker. So the premise was that we wanted to help musicians, not judge the quality of their work or put our tastes on it, but just help people
who wanted to express themselves through music.”

The Foundation’s diverse undertakings have included donating Fender guitars to youth centres and prisons; providing tour support for up-andcomers; setting up a music room for the homeless in Westminster; and sponsoring a music production course for 16 to 25-year-olds at The Roundhouse in London’s Camden.

“Since 2012, we’ve supported and worked with WAYout Arts, supporting vulnerable, conflict-affected street youth in Sierra Leone,” Garland says. “We’ve funded and equipped music studios in their Freetown hub, one in a male prison and also a mobile recording unit that goes to the female prison and the provinces. We’re very, very proud of that.” Fundraising efforts have also included a night at Boisdale featuring Mick Jones, Chrissie Hynde, and Jools Holland.

Marc Bolan’s will was so tax-efficient, his son, Rolan, and widow, Gloria Jones, lived in penury for years
Marc Bolan’s will was so tax-efficient, his son, Rolan, and widow, Gloria Jones, lived in penury for years

Back to Eamonn Forde, whose principal caution is: leave a proper, updated will. “Some artists don’t leave one – such as Prince, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Some leave multiple, slightly contradictory wills, like Aretha Franklin. Or people just don’t update their wills. There are cases of artists getting divorced and the second wife or husband is not included because, through laziness, negligence or incompetence, the will wasn’t updated.” He sounds another note of warning: copyright expiry.

Estates don’t have an eternity in which to make money from recordings and publishing – already, work by the greats of blues and jazz is moving into the public domain, allowing third-party companies to swoop in with cheaper reissues that undercut the
official ones.

“It’s different from territory to territory, but with recordings it’s about 70 years before they fall into
public domain,” Forde explains. Other sources of income are more long-lasting: “Trademarks are the most enduring thing an estate can have,” he points out. “If they’re maintained, they can last in perpetuity – there is no cut-off point.” You might wonder what uses trademarks have and the answer is many: “The Miles Davis estate has trademarked the phrases ‘Kind of Blue’ and ‘Bitches Brew’ and uses them on whiskey and beer. They’ve also trademarked the silhouette shape of Davis playing the trumpet.”

While there’s considerable potential for Strummer-related trademarks, Garland is motivated more by the desire to eternalise her late husband’s spirit. It’s a lot of work, so in recent years, she’s taken on noted American manager, David Zonshine, formerly of DreamWorks and Universal, to help her stay on top of it. Zonshine also works with the George Harrison estate. “I’ve been able to relax so much in his hands, because I know that he absolutely has my back with anything he puts forward,” Garland says. “Anything he proposes will never be naff. It’ll always be well thought-out.”

Eamonn Forde’s “Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates” is out now (Omnibus Press, £20). For more on The Joe Strummer Foundation, visit