How Michael Jackson Got His Master Recordings Back

Thanks to a feisty lawyer, a reluctant label boss and a fictional alien.

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“You know what John? I think I fucked up.”

“I think you did, Walter.”

That’s how the conversation began when Walter Yetnikoff, then chief of CBS Records, called John Branca, lawyer for Michael Jackson, shortly after the 1982 release of Thriller. Weeks earlier, the swaggering music executive had threatened to sue rival label MCA unless the company withdrew the E.T. storybook album, which heavily featured Jackson. But Yetnikoff didn’t realize how much the latter meant to his top artist—or how massive Thriller would be.

“Yeah, you guys told me this was going to be a big album, and Michael took it seriously,” Yetnikoff continued. “But I didn’t really understand how big it was going to be. Is he pissed?"

"Wouldn’t you be,” Branca replied, “if you were him?"

"Well,” Yetnikoff continued, “what can I do?”

Branca, now a septuagenarian Hollywood power broker, loves telling this story. He first relayed it to me in an interview for my book Michael Jackson, Inc., many years ago. Now he’s doling it out over coffee at the Beverly Glen Deli high in the hills over Los Angeles—with renewed significance in light of the recently-skyrocketing price of intellectual property, particularly in the field of music copyrights (or, as I like to call it, the ownership of genius).

“Michael was a real student of the business of music,” Branca explains. “Helen Mirren once asked me, ‘Who was your great mentor?’ The funny thing was, like if I really think about it, my mentors were Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger and Brian Wilson. … Representing the greats in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and how they were taken advantage of or ripped off in the ‘50s and the 60s, was a real education.”

Jackson’s own music business education came firsthand while watching legendary Motown founder Berry Gordy guide his company and the career of the Jackson 5. As much as he admired Gordy, Jackson also realized that owners tended to fare better than employees in these sorts of situations. Gordy paid the band 6% of 90% of retail sales, a meager but fairly standard practice in an unfair time. When split between the Jacksons, the tally amounted to about two cents per album for Michael.

Critically, Gordy also controlled the group’s master recordings—that was also common at the time, and Jackson found himself in a similar situation even as he transitioned to a solo career at CBS Records. After decades watching Gordy amass copyrights, Jackson knew he needed to do the same, and found an ally in Branca. The lawyer had already worked on deals for Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan, both of whom had retrieved their masters from CBS.

“I'll never forget Michael had called me aside at one point and he said, ‘Are you as good as [Frank Sinatra’s lawyer] Mickey Rudin?’” says Branca, who replied: “‘Actually Michael, I'm better.’ It took even Michael aback. He goes, ‘Why do you say that, Branca?’ I said, ‘Because I'm younger. I have more energy.’ It was the right answer—Michael wants people that are confident. He said, ‘Well, I want to own my masters, Branca. I want you to figure out how we can do that.’”

It took a little while, but Branca finally saw his chance to grant Jackson’s wish in the wake of the E.T. fiasco.

“What can I do to make up for it?” Yetnikoff pressed over the phone.

“You give him the ownership of his masters.”

It was, ultimately, a centimillion-dollar question—one that took Yetnikoff only seconds to answer: “Done.”

Reminiscing at the Beverly Glen Deli, Branca smiles.

“That's how the negotiation went,” he says. “It was a five minute phone call.”

Jackson went on to win eight Grammys for his efforts that year, mostly for Thriller. But the golden gramophone he took home for E.T. carried special relevance. “Of all the awards I’ve got tonight,” he said, “I’m most proud of this one.”

What seemed more out-of-this world was the idea that an artist could regain control of his intellectual property—a feat many talented musicians twice Jackson’s age still struggle to achieve. But the ownership of creative genius, it turns out, can stay with the genius behind the creation. And that’s a lesson with ramifications far beyond music.

You just read the latest serialized installment of my book We Are All Musicians Now — Chapter 1: The Ownership of Genius (Part 2), Want to get the rest? Sign up here to ensure weekly delivery of each new chapter.