Let's Get Together and Deal All Right
It's early afternoon, only hours before the opening bash at the newly restored Marlin Hotel on Miami Beach, and the place is alive. The traffic outside on Twelfth Street backs up behind semi-trucks unloading sound and stage equipment, and young, suave workers from Jamaica, Britain, New York, and Miami bustle around making final arrangements for the party, securing adequate booze supplies, coordinating a guest list chock-full of Very Important People.
And everyone wants to say hello to Chris Blackwell. The founder of Island Records, director of the Island Trading Company (which owns the Marlin), international music-industry giant, has just awoken, having jetted in on the redeye from New York and partied at the Warsaw Ballroom until well after dawn. But he's already holding meetings and reveling in the festiveness of the new hotel, the first of several renovation projects he's planned for South Beach. Besides celebrating his arrival on South Beach, Blackwell also uses the occasion of an interview to declare an end to a decade of legal skirmishes that have tied up the estate of reggae great Bob Marley. "That's all gotten resolved," Blackwell remarks curtly. "That was settled last December."
It's not quite that simple, however, nor has it ever been.
When he died on May 11, 1981, Marley left behind at least eleven children by seven different women, but no will. He also left behind an extraordinary musical legacy. Roger Steffens, a reggae historian and Marley expert, says it's difficult to gauge the size of the Marley musical library because the musician scattered his work among several production deals with several different producers during his career. "Nobody really knows because it's never been under one roof," Steffens explains. "Between the uncollected singles and the unreleased materials, I would say conservatively that there's enough for at least a dozen new albums." In addition, Steffens says, many videotapes of live performances await release. There's no telling exactly how much all this is worth, although appraisers last year valued the estate between $10 million and $12 million.
With no will to divvy the assets, Marley's death provoked an endless series of claims and counterclaims for his fortune, involving feuding family members, former bandmembers, record companies, and a battalion of lawyers and accountants. In 1987 the courts ordered that the estate be sold, with proceeds to be split among the beneficiaries (who, according to Jamaican inheritance law, include the eleven children and the singer's widow, Rita Marley).
Blackwell, who signed Marley to Island Records in 1973, beginning a business relationship that lasted until Marley's death, has been intimately involved in the estate tug-of-war. In 1988 Island Logic, another of Blackwell's companies, made an $8.2 million bid for the estate, which the Jamaican courts had placed under the auspices of the Mutual Security Merchant Bank and Trust Company, Ltd. of Jamaica. With its bid, Island Logic offered to buy Marley's song catalogue, recordings, writer's royalties, record royalties, record distribution rights, and all rights to his name, likeness, and biographical materials.
A Jamaican court approved the sale, but all of Marley's beneficiaries appealed the decision. The Jamaican Court of Appeals upheld the sale with some modifications, but the beneficiaries again appealed, this time to the Privy Council in England, the final authority over Jamaican matters. Opposition to Blackwell's offer was led by Marley's mother, Dade County resident Cedella Booker, who at the time was the legal guardian of one of the Marley children. "Mrs. Booker, through her attorney, kept trying to delay it [the sale to Island Logic], saying she had a better offer," explains Miami attorney J. Reid Bingham, the ancillary estate administrator in the United States. "She didn't want to see the assets go out of the family." Moreover, those who opposed the sale to Blackwell thought the purchase price was too low.
In the summer of 1990, the Privy Council finally heard the case, and sent it back to the Jamaican courts with an opinion that the courts should consider soliciting new bids and reappraising the estate. The estate administrators advertised the estate and attracted a handful of new bids, all but two of which quickly dropped out. A Jamaican judge weighed those two offers - one by MCA Music Publishing, the other a joint bid by Island Logic and Marley's adult beneficiaries - last fall.
"It has always been Chris Blackwell's intention that the assets be acquired and managed in a way that would keep alive the memory of Bob Marley and which would help take care of the family members and also provide money for charitable purposes in Jamaica," says Charles Ortner, attorney in the U.S. for Island Logic. "This new structure was worked out to be sure that the assets would be controlled by the family and those closest to the family instead of allowing them to get into the hands of MCA."
The judge, Justice Clawrence Walker of the Supreme Court, ruled on December 9 in favor of the Island/beneficiaries' $11.5 million bid. Under the offer, the purchasing group reaffirms the 1988 bid, and in addition:
* Buys the estate's rights to 50 percent of royalties from Marley's songs recorded for Cayman Music, including most of the reggae star's recordings from the years prior to 1976.
*Takes over the estate's litigation against Cayman Music, which allegedly owes the estate back royalties and interest of more than two million dollars.
* Assumes defense of the action brought against the estate by several members of Marley's back-up band, the Wailers, who claim they're entitled to royalties even though they never signed any contracts with Marley.
* Buys Marley's property in Jamaica at newly appraised values.
* Waives the adult beneficiaries' rights to monetary proceeds from the sale.
* Immediately pays $995,000 in cash to each of the five minor beneficiaries and distributes to them what's left of the purchase price after all the legal bills and estate taxes are paid.
According to Walker, the Island/beneficiaries' proposal offered several advantages over the MCA offer, including a larger amount of money for the child beneficiaries; maintenance of litigation against Cayman Music; and the pre-empting of possible litigation by Island Logic (which claimed it was owed a fee for managing some of Marley's assets since his death, according to estate administrator Bingham). In addition, Walker considered what he referred to as the "minor" issue of sentimental value. "Taking the factor of sentiment into account...I ask the question: All other things being in their favor, who better than the widow and children of Bob Marley to own the music of Bob Marley?" wrote Walker in his decision. "It seems to me that the answer must be no one." After making his ruling, the judge sent away the lawyers for both sides to work out the details of a court order, which Walker signed December 20.
Which, as Chris Blackwell says, settled the purchase of the estate.
Wrong. Since December 20, estate administrators and attorneys for the Marley family have been locking horns over the terms of the order. "In my view, [the judge's order] was the end of the matter," says Michael Hylton, a Jamaican attorney representing the purchasing group in the Jamaican courts. "The administrator has taken the view that there is still scope to argue the terms of the document. There has therefore been a dispute as to whether the order can be renegotiated."
Attorneys for both sides met in Miami late last month to work out their differences, and met again in Jamaica a week ago Friday. "There are one or two outstanding issues, and I have confidence that we can resolve those quickly," Hylton says. "No, I would say I'm optimistic we can resolve them." In these protracted estate proceedings, he adds, there's little room for confidence.
Even with a final agreement on the terms of the sale, Bob Marley won't exactly be able to rest in peace. Former advisers to Marley's widow, Rita, face charges that they defrauded the estate of about $14 million in assets while Rita managed the estate from the time of Marley's death until 1986. And there's still the matter of the Wailers' claims and the lawsuit against Cayman Music. There also remain several other smaller issues, ancillary estate administrator Bingham says, including a tax claim against the IRS filed by the estate, and a tax liability issue in the United Kingdom.
But completing the sale to Blackwell's group would remove the largest obstacle to a resolution of the morass, which to date has generated millions of dollars in legal and accounting fees. Michael Hylton explains that representatives from both Island and the family will oversee the management of the estate once the sale is complete. The agreement between Blackwell and the Marley family stipulates that at the end of the century, the family take over full management of the estate, Hylton says.
It remains unclear, though, how Blackwell and the beneficiaries will exploit the vast marketing potential of the estate's artistic assets. "Until the sale is complete, we could not make any kind of statement or announcement," Hylton says. "There are a great number of projects we are looking at and a number of different people have contacted us."
Chris Blackwell also refuses to offer any details about the group's plans for the estate. "I think the main thing is to keep the spirit of what Bob Marley wants us to do while trying to maximize the income," he says, adding that Island Records and the beneficiaries have already turned down a "huge" contract from Miller Brewing Co. to use a Marley tune in a commercial. Marley's religion didn't permit him to drink alcohol. "We haven't compromised anything to do with Bob," Blackwell insists, "and we don't intend to.
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