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Nearly all the MJ merchandise is ‘bootlegged’

Image: Michael Jackson memorabilia
A vendor sells buttons at a makeshift memorial outside the family home of the late pop star Michael Jackson in the Encino section of Los Angeles.Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: contributor

Tickets to the Michael Jackson memorial tribute were in heavy demand, with over 1.6 million requests for only 8,750 recipients, each of whom were entitled to a pair.

Michael Jackson’s music continues to surge. According to Nielsen SoundScan, his solo album sales in the U.S. alone went from 10,000 in the week before his death to 422,000 in the week ending June 28.

Sales of Michael Jackson merchandise? Not so hot.

“There hasn’t been a demand in recent years,” said Marty Brochstein, senior vice president for industry relations and information at the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association.

Jackson’s fans are mourning his passing and remembering his career by listening to his music and watching video of his performances. But they don’t yet seem to be buying Jackson paraphernalia — T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, mouse pads and the like — in significant numbers. And that may be partly because licensed material has been unavailable.

As Brochstein pointed out, the demand for licensing of Michael Jackson items just wasn’t there before he died at age 50 on June 25 at his Los Angeles residence. It was only on Monday that a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ruled that attorney John Branca and music executive John McClain should take over Jackson’s estate for now.

That means besides the memorial service, funeral, investigation into his death and custody of the pop star’s children, the Jackson estate will also have to deal with licensing of Jackson’s name and likeness for merchandising.

Until that is sorted out, vendors on the street and in many stores will be selling wares made from “independent” sources that are not licensed.

“There are ways around it,” explained Alex Tchekmeian, president of AKT Enterprises, a network of businesses that handles entertainment-related goods and services, but is not currently in the Michael Jackson business. “You can’t use his name. You can’t use specific things that correlate to what he’s done.

“But a lot of manufacturers will find phrases related to Michael Jackson, or they’ll use a one-color image of his silhouette in which 20 percent of the image is different from him.”

In Los Angeles, the area around Staples Center, site of Tuesday’s memorial service, is in virtual lockdown save for law enforcement personnel and those ticket holders. In another part of town, David Pohar, owner of New Way Silk Screen Printing, is filling orders for T-shirts from entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on the sudden interest in Jackson, to be sold on the streets near the Staples Center perimeter.

“I had somebody order 500 today, and I expect a couple of hundred more tomorrow,” Pohar said on Monday. “Who knows if they’ll show up, though.”

Once a customer comes in with art work and payment, Pohar will start printing, he said. “It all helps. It’s something that we hadn’t counted on,” he explained. “No one had called for Michael Jackson shirts prior to his passing.”

Pohar worked for a different company when “Thriller” came out in 1982, he said, and that resulted in the sales of “a couple hundred thousand” replicas of white sequined gloves.

Ira Mayer, who runs a trade publication called The Licensing Letter, said Jackson damaged his brand in recent years and as a result eliminated the market for merchandise and memorabilia.

“He used to be able to sell gloves and shirts and other merchandise,” Mayer said. “But once you had him dangling the baby off the terrace and the charges of pedophilia, who wants to go there? Wal-Mart certainly doesn’t want to go there.

“There’s a lot of old stuff on eBay, but there are no bids.”

Indeed, a quick perusal of Michael Jackson stuff on eBay shows few if any bids for most items, although there are some, like an 11-inch MJ doll that received eight bids ($52 top bid) or a “King of Pop” T-shirt that attracted 11 ($15 top bid).

“The music side of things is completely blowing me away in terms of how many CDs that are being sold,” Tchekmeian said. “People will buy DVDs to remember how great he was. There is much lower demand for T-shirts and other things.

“From a personal standpoint, it’s definitely not worth it for us to purchase a license. You gotta strike while the iron is hot. It’ll be past that time in a month or so.”

There is a time element involved, but opinions vary as to how long that will be. By the time the Jackson estate gets its licensing ducks in a row, will the interest in souvenirs evaporate? And will bootlegs fill much of the demand in the interim?

“Generally when it comes to the approval process, a manufacturer doesn’t just sign the contract,” said Brochstein, who added that usually such agreements are good for at least two years. “He has to do prototypes and have the designs approved by the rights holder. Generally there is a shorter time period for T-shirts, but the manufacturing of hard goods takes longer. It could be a couple of months for soft lines and much more for hard lines.”

But Mayer said that where there’s a will, there’s a way to get it done faster. “That’s completely dependent on who is deemed in charge by the courts, and whether Joe Jackson (Michael’s father) challenges that person or team,” Mayer explained. “If someone’s in charge, and acknowledged so, the deal can be done in hours and merchandise can hit the streets in 24 hours. That’s not necessarily ‘the norm,’ but when the motivation is there, it can happen.”

And as for unauthorized merchandise? “Legitimate goods are always competing with bootleg,” Mayer said. “There’s nothing new there. For the moment, since unlicensed merchandise is almost exclusively what’s available, that’s what’s selling. If the designs of new merchandise are good, then that will sell, too.”