Michael Jackson's wrongful death trial reveals the ugly truth behind touring
As the Michael Jackson wrongful death trial against AEG Live continues into its seventh week, the testimony is revealing as much about the often nasty business of touring in general as it is the particularly ugly secrets of the Jackson “This Is It” outing specifically.
As the email trail shows, what it often comes down to— and Jackson was an extreme case because of his superstar status and the earning potential— is keeping the artist on the road, through whatever means possible. I’m not trying the case here and I have no idea how the jury will decide, but through the testimony so far, it sure sounds like Jackson was in no shape to be thinking about a 50-date stand at London’s O2 Arena. From the emails exchanged, it’s a miracle he made it through the two sentences he uttered at the press conference he was so “drunk and despondent,” according to an email from AEG Live head Randy Phillips.
All sides at various times expressed anything from mild concern to outright panic about his ability to sustain the rigors of a live show or even do multiple 360 degree spins. I’m no sage, but I remember when the tour was announced and concerts kept being added, thinking there was no way Jackson could make it through that many concerts given how fragile a state he seemed to be in. To be sure, AEG tried to mitigate the risk by making the world come to Jackson instead of his going to the world, but even then, it seemed a case of greed.
So why, in the face of what seems to be incontrovertible evidence that Jackson was in no shape to perform, didn’t someone pull the plug? Because once the wheels are in motion, especially on an enterprise as large as this one, it’s almost impossible to stop the juggernaut...though Jackson certainly found a way to stop it permanently, sadly.
The artist may be alone up on the stage, or surrounded by a small band, but there is a whole behind-the-scenes cottage industry that depends upon that human taking the stage every night and millions are at stake when that doesn’t happen. It’s not just the money earned off the ticket sales, but from merchandise, concessions, parking, ticketing fees, etc. The ancillary revenue can often surpass the ticket take.
I’ve seen artists on stage who had no business being anywhere but in rehab and yet the tour chugs on every night. The artist is up on display, like a circus bear, trotted out nightly to make sure everyone gets his or her share and if the act stops, so does the money train. The goal is to prop them up with a phalanx of support: whatever it takes to get them on stage.
I’m painting a craven picture to be sure, and most tours are handled just fine, but it’s important to note that it’s not always the folks behind the curtain who are demanding that the act keep going: sometimes it’s the artist. There are varying accounts of Jackson’s financial situation, from downright broke to still flush, but it seems fair to say that money was the motivating factor for his willingness to take the stage again as well.
Regardless, the takeaway from the Jackson trial could very well be much bigger than the jury’s decision over whether AEG Live was culpable in his death. By showing the drama behind the star-making machinery, the trial has revealed to the world just how sordid the touring industry can be.