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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Michael Jackson is number one on the charts all over again this weekend. Since his death on Thursday afternoon, Amazon, the online retailer, has announced that they sold out of his music in just minutes. Part of those sales will go to his estate - but perhaps not.

Reports say that Mr. Jackson was more than $400 million in debt. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates tries to figure out who gets what.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Every time someone like me does a story on Michael Jackson stuff, we almost always throw in a little of his music.

(Soundbite of song, "Bad")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Late Singer): (Singing) Because I'm bad, I'm bad…

GRIGSBY BATES: And when we do that, this happens…

(Soundbite of cash register)

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Fair use rules permit the journalistic use of short pieces of music in news stories without any payment being made.]

GRIGSBY BATES: Those funds go to the Jackson estate. Matthew Miller is senior editor for Forbes magazine. It publishes a list of celebrities whose earnings continue long after they're dead. Miller says Jackson has the same potential as another Forbes dead celeb high earner.

Mr. MATTHEW MILLER (Forbes Magazine): Take, for example, Elvis Presley…

(Soundbite of song, "Jailhouse Rock")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) Warden threw a party in the county jail, the prison band was there and they began to wail…

Mr. MILLER: Elvis left behind a massive catalog of songs, a working estate at Graceland. He had movies, he had memorabilia, and all of that stuff continues to be bought and sold.

GRIGSBY BATES: And every time they're bought and sold legally…

(Soundbite of cash register)

GRIGSBY BATES: Jackson will be making money too - someday - but he'll have to settle some debts first, because, Miller says, he was living like a lot of Americans - only with more zeroes.

Mr. MILLER: When you spend like a billionaire but you only have assets of a millionaire - which is what Michael Jackson essentially did - you're going to run into cash flow problems.

GRIGSBY BATES: In 1985, Jackson paid over $47 million for ATV Music, a company that held the rights to hundreds of songs written by the Beatles. He eventually merged it with Sony and that should have kept him financially secure for life. But he bought a ranch in Santa Barbara in 1988 and turned it into Neverland, an amusement park built to his personal tastes. Over the years Jackson was also sued multiple times. He spent millions on out-of-court settlements.

J. Duross O'Bryan is a forensic accountant. Prosecutors called him in to examine Jackson's finances in a 2005 child molestation trial. Jackson was acquitted. O'Brien said Neverland was a black hole of financial need. There were fleets of vehicles, scores of staff, exotic animals.

Mr. J. DUROSS O'BRYAN (Forensic Accountant): So, you know, it wasn't just a mortgage payment. It was a substantial amount. It's almost like running an entire resort operation.

GRIGSBY BATES: Jackson borrowed heavily against his profitable music catalog, O'Bryan said. It earned lots, but not for him.

Mr. O'BRYAN: Even though it was paying a substantial amount of money, most of it was just going back to Sony for his share of the advances being made to him.

GRIGSBY BATES: Touring would have eased the financial pressure on Jackson considerably, but he'd become skittish about concert performances. The fact that he'd agreed to do 50 of them in London starting in July is an indication of his dire financial straits.

And the trouble doesn't end with death. Andy Katzenstein is a prominent attorney whose expertise is in planning and estate management for what he diplomatically calls high net-worth clients. He says figuring out what Jackson is earning posthumously is going to be a headache. Take music…

Mr. ANDY KATZENSTEIN (Attorney): When you're in the music world, there are performer's royalties, mechanical royalties, writer's royalties. You have to deal with EMI and BMI and all the tracking services.

GRIGSBY BATES: Confused yet? Then there are the myriad businesses Jackson ended up owing, and support for his three children by two different mothers. So even though eventually there may be plenty of…

(Soundbite of cash register)

GRIGSBY BATES: …from his songs and videos, good luck trying to untangle that skein. Andy Katzenstein says it will take some time.

Mr. KATZENSTEIN: In this particular case, I see this one going on for years.

GRIGSBY BATES: Oh dear.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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