Marty Bandier, CEO/Chairman of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, called entertainment attorney John Branca “the #1 publishing lawyer in the country.” Michael Jackson hailed Branca, his longtime business and legal advisor, as “the greatest lawyer of our time.” And client Carlos Santana called him simply “the Shaman.” Branca has been advancing the careers of recording artists and music companies, among others, for more than four decades.
Branca is a partner and head of the music department at the prominent entertainment law firm Ziffren Brittenham LLP where his clients have included more than 30 members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – among them Aerosmith, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Doors, Dr. Dre, Earth, Wind and Fire, ELO, Fleetwood Mac, John Fogerty, Don Henley, Elton John, Nirvana, the estate of Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, the estate of Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones – sports figures such as Mike Tyson, the comedians Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and the Vatican, independent record labels such as Interscope Records and Rhino Records and industry investors such as JVC, Matsushita and Vivendi.
Still, Michael Jackson burns bright in the John Branca firmament of luminaries. Branca lent his expertise to the King of Pop on and off from 1980 through Jackson’s passing, and since 2009 he and music executive John McClain have served as custodians of the Michael Jackson Estate and brand, initially as co-executors, then additionally as co-managers. Since then, Branca has led in the creation of one of the most successful touring shows of all time, Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL World Tour, the acclaimed permanent Las Vegas Show, Michael Jackson ONE, and serves as producer of MJ The Musical, the Broadway musical which opened to critical acclaim this year. With a biopic and other projects in the future, there seems to be no end in sight to the possibilities Branca has in store for the Michael Jackson brand.
Branca’s attention to Jackson’s interests has taken on near-mythic proportions. The first milestone came in 1983, when Jackson needed $1 million to make what would become the 14-minute “Thriller” video, which was conceived as a way to put the 1982 album “Thriller” back on the top of the charts. As Jackson recalled in “Moonwalk,” his autobiography: “John came up with a great idea. He suggested we make a separate video, financed by somebody else, about the making of the ‘Thriller’ video. It seemed odd that no one had ever done this before.” Branca raised the funds by selling rights to MTV, Showtime and a home video company. The result was the 60-minute documentary “Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller.”
“Michael Jackson’s Thriller” is the official title of the “Thriller” video. A bona fide pop-cultural phenomenon, it has sold upwards of 10 million copies and is the only music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The album “Thriller,” meanwhile, is the best-selling album of all time, with 103 million copies sold.
Branca’s “Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller” gambit nonetheless pales in comparison to what came next: his negotiation, in 1985, of the $47.5 million purchase of ATV Music Publishing, home to the Lennon-McCartney catalog; the 1995 partnership deal with Sony that created Sony/ATV Music and netted Jackson $110 million at the time; the license to Sony, upon Jackson’s death, of future music rights for $250 million in what remains the biggest record deal in history; and the $2.2 billion acquisition by Sony of EMI Music Publishing in 2013, which created the biggest music publishing conglomerate in history.
When Branca appeared on “60 Minutes” in 2013, host Lara Logan summarized his and McClain’s guidance of the estate as “the most remarkable financial and image resurrection in pop-culture history.” And that was before the 2016 sale of Jackson’s EMI-fattened stake in his partnership with Sony/ATV – a $750 million bonanza.
“Our investment banker analyzed Michael’s return on the Sony/ATV investment,” Billboard quoted Branca as saying in 2016, “and concluded that it averaged in excess of 30 percent per annum from inception in 1985 to sale.” And that did not include the July 2018 purchase of the Estate’s share in EMI, about which Billboard concluded, “The Jackson estate held a 9.84% interest in EMI which means that without putting up any money in the deal, by virtue of its stake in Sony/ATV, the Jackson estate received $287.5 million, not a bad return on a zero dollar investment.”
Branca is also chairman of The Michael Jackson Company – which in 2009 coproduced the film “This Is It,” the highest-grossing concert film of all time, with gross revenue in excess of $500 million – and Optimum Productions, producer of the animated “Michael Jackson’s Halloween,” a 2017 CBS prime-time special, and “Michael Jackson’s Thriller 3D,” which debuted in 2017 at the Venice Film Festival. He also was a producer of the Spike Lee movies “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall” and “Bad 25”.
In another inspired move, Branca initiated a partnership for the Estate with Cirque du Soleil, of which Jackson had been a devoted fan. Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” ran from 2011-2014, closing as one of the Top 10 highest-grossing tours ever. “Michael Jackson ONE” has resided in Las Vegas breaking box office records at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino since 2013. And in continuing Michael’s philosophy of always working with the best talent in the world, the Estate brought in Tony Award winning Director/Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage to create MJ The Musical, opening in February 2022.
At the time of his passing, Jackson was roughly $500 million in debt; in just under seven years, Branca’s shrewd supervision of his assets put the Michael Jackson Estate $500 million in the black. It was the billion-dollar turnaround heard round the world.
John Branca Sr. (John’s father) was a promising high-school baseball player who later became the New York State Athletic Commissioner and a New York assemblyman. (John’s uncle, the legendary Ralph Branca featured in the movie “42”, pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers and was a teammate and lifelong friend of Jackie Robinson.) John’s mother, dancer/singer/actress Barbara Werle, whose credits include two Elvis Presley movies, had relocated to L.A. when John was four after she and John’s father divorced. John joined his mother on the west coast when he turned 11.
He started his first band at 13, playing keyboards and guitar and writing songs. This was two years after arriving in L.A. from Mt. Vernon, N.Y., where he’d been living with his father and buying a 7-inch 45 rpm record every Saturday with his weekly allowance.
When he was 16, John’s band scored a record deal – the act’s profile had been raised by gigs opening for the Doors, including a show at the famed Whisky a Go Go. His studies suffered, however, and when the band failed to catch fire, his mother insisted he either commit to high school or get a job. He chose the former but later opted for a third route.
As recounted by Southern California Super Lawyers in 2006: “One day Branca marched into the principal’s office and announced, ‘I’m done.’ And, amazingly, the principal let him go and let him graduate. ‘It was perhaps an indication of early negotiating skills,’ Branca says, ‘since I accurately read the principal’s capacity for aggravation (limited) and real motivation, for tuition.”
The barrister-to-be then enrolled in Los Angeles City College, where he majored in music but determined that, as he put it, “I had inherited my mother’s athletic ability and my father’s musical skills.” So he transferred to Occidental College, graduating cum laude and with honors, earning a degree in political science, then entered UCLA School of Law. He was editor-in-chief of one of the law reviews there and earned his J.D. in 1975.
Branca actually began his career in estate law, the legal field having become a viable career option after rock stardom didn’t pan out. Estate planning (with the firm Kindel & Anderson) gave way to entertainment law after Branca experienced a lightbulb moment while reading an article in Time Magazine about Elton John that highlighted the star’s representation in legal negotiations. (Branca would later represent John and, among other things, handle John’s agreement to write music for “The Lion King.”)
By the age of 27, Branca had joined the firm of Hardee Barovick Konecky and begun negotiating tours, with Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, George Harrison and Neil Diamond among his first artist clients.
Touring would also be the setting for one of Branca’s most notable innovations. When the Rolling Stones were preparing their 1989 “Steel Wheels” tour, Branca gave control of sponsorships, venues, ticket sales and merchandise to a single concert promoter, departing from the tradition of local promoters handling each city. This would make the tour significantly easier to organize, which meant venues could be determined earlier and tickets sold sooner. This scheme has since become the model for major concert tours.
In 1980, Branca found himself working on the Michael Jackson account. He and the artist had an immediate rapport, with Jackson even wondering if they’d met before.
Calling Branca one of his “closest and most valued advisors,” Jackson recounts in “Moonwalk”: “John had been working with me ever since the Off the Wall days; in fact, he even helped me out by donning many hats and functioning in several capacities when I had no manager after Thriller was released. He’s one of those extremely talented, capable men who can do anything.” When Branca married his first wife, Jackson was his best man. (Little Richard officiated; David Lee Roth threw the bachelor party.)
In 1981, Branca joined Ziffren Brittenham, where he continued his association with the King of Pop and maintained relationships with record labels, publishing companies and music executives. He made headlines when he sold Berry Gordy’s Jobete music publishing company (the “Motown catalog”) for a record breaking valuation multiple. He made further headlines when he sold the Leiber & Stoller catalog for yet another valuation record, and also the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. He likewise gained recognition for advising both Matsushita and Vivendi on the acquisition of Universal Music. He has advised numerous independent labels, including Death Row Records, Rhino Records, and the groundbreaking Interscope Records which he represented during its formation and subsequent very lucrative sale. In addition, he guided Carlos Santana to reunite with Clive Davis leading to the “Supernatural” album which sold in excess of 25 million copies worldwide, and is the only album along with “Thriller” to garner eight Grammy awards. During this period, Branca and his firm also represented such mega-selling acts as the Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion, TLC, and Usher, among others, and established a trend of mega artist deals for clients including Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, and Don Henley, among others.
Branca has represented notable music industry investors including Richard Branson, Ron Perelman (MacAndrews & Forbes), Apollo Advisors, Boston Ventures, Vivendi, Matsushita, JVC, Marvin Davis, Walt Disney, Inc, Dick Clark Productions, Safeguard Scientifics, Authentic Brands Groups, and others. Recently, Branca completed a record distribution deal for the Bee Gees catalog with Capitol, secured a publishing-administration deal for Barry Gibb and produced a prime-time special Grammy tribute to the Bee Gees. Additionally he has negotiated various signature agreements for Enrique Iglesias, Lil Pump and the Elvis Presley estate.
Branca’s career has not been strictly about dealmaking, however. He is chairman emeritus of MusiCares, the Recording Academy charity whose mission is to provide “a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need.” Billboard related in 2016: “Branca cites the organization’s largest undertaking as the most inspiring: ‘During Hurricane Katrina, musicians in New Orleans lost their instruments and the ability to make a living.’ MusiCares immediately pledged $1 million in aid for Katrina and, as [Recording Academy president Neil] Portnow proudly notes, ‘We were there before FEMA.’”
Branca has also been involved in MusiCares because it is a source of help and hope for musicians struggling with substance abuse. In 1992, he was instrumental in the formation of the Musicians’ Assistance Program, which was acquired by MusiCares in 2004.
He’s on the Board of Trustees of Occidental College and the Board of the UCLA Law School Ziffren Center for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law, and he’s acted as a fundraiser for UCLA Athletics. He recently joined the Board of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and the Grammy Museum.
But Branca has served artists throughout his career primarily by making them money, in some cases as an expert on copyright law and royalty recovery – helping Don Henley regain ownership of his Eagles copyrights, John Fogerty attain a royalty on Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Beach Boys and the Doors obtain increases on catalog royalties – but mostly, as legendary Motown Records founder Berry Gordy called him, “the Smokey Robinson of dealmaking.”
Even so, as he told the L.A. Business Journal in 2017: “For somebody who is interested first and foremost in making money … you would probably go up to Silicon Valley. But for me, my motivation is that I love music … Growing up, if you had told me I could represent … Brian Wilson, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson, I would have said, how much do I have to pay to do that? To even meet [them] would have been enough.”