A Family Franchise
MIKE LEVIN (Billboard, September 18, 2004)
legacy of Elvis Presley is in good hands. A few years
after his death in 1977, Presley's estate and rights
to his music and likeness came under the control of
a trust and board of trustees, headed by his ex-wife,
it came a business plan to make the King's memory
and music available to a fan base that held Elvis
close to its heart, both during his life and after
his death. Jack Soden was there in Memphis from the
beginning, helping Priscilla and other trustees create
accessibility to all things Elvis.
helped form Elvis Presley Enterprises when the artist's
daughter, Lisa Marie Presley turned 25 and took control
of the trust in 1993. He became president soon after. Now
involved in activities that range from licensing to charitable
foundations, EPE is a large private company, yet it remains
as close-knit as the clan Elvis always kept within arms'
fabulous being part of the family and helping represent
the franchise," says Joe DiMuro, executive VP of BMG Strategic
Marketing and the man in charge of Elvis' music catalog.
During the past two years, Soden and DiMuro have overseen
a renaissance of Presley's audio and video output at a time
when his music had lost a sharp focus.
a hectic year celebrating the 50th anniversary of rock'n'roll's
birth in Memphis, Soden talked with Billboard about EPE's
role in maintaining Presley's legacy.
did you become involved with EPE?
I had the good fortune of being invited to help Priscilla
Presley and the co-trustees [of Elvis' estate] develop a
plan to open Graceland for tours in 1982. That early success
really laid the foundation for what became yet another chapter
in the story of Elvis' continuing place in popular music
and culture. Undoubtedly Elvis' legacy would have endured
no matter what, but Graceland definitely provided a unique
place for fans to experience Elvis, the man. Elvis' fans
have always been integral to maintaining his legacy.
How important are they to EPE's business operations, Graceland
Our success has grown to where we employ more than 400 people,
and each part of the business supports the other parts.
For instance, even if Graceland just broke even, it would
remain critically important as a support for music, licensing,
publishing and other things. Licensing is very fluid. The
constant is our demand for quality, but over time, tastes
and trends change.
at Graceland and worldwide springs from the same goal of
providing Elvis fans with tangible tokens of an intangible
experience. At the heart of it all, though, is always the
power of the music.
Another part of EPE's mandate seems to be about attracting
a new generation of Elvis fans.
Since the mid-1980s we have continually introduced Elvis
to younger audiences. We make the introductions, and the
rest happens without much more of a push from us. Elvis
just grabs people with his charisma, good looks and, of
course, his music. In the 1980s and 1990s, we made videos
available to the Disney Channel and VH1, and now those kids
are in their 20s and 30s and they're buying records and
DVDs and coming to Graceland in droves.
were lucky [to be included in 2002's] "Lilo & Stitch" movie
and soundtrack, and because of that we have 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds
who are dyed-in-the-wool Elvis fans. In recent years, BMG
has done a terrific job with marketing and new releases.
We had a huge hit with "A Little Less Conversation," because
Nike used it in its World Cup [advertising] campaign, and
then the song [was remixed by JXL, and it] caught on in
dance clubs all over the world. Let's face it: Elvis is
all about the music, and it appeals to all demographics
Elvis' daughter, Lisa Marie, also appeals to youth. What
is her role as EPE's chairman?
She definitely puts a young face to the Elvis legacy. She
is her own girl, and younger audiences absolutely love that.
Lisa has a really full life, her own music career and she's
a devoted mother. She doesn't want to be involved in day-to-day
operations, but her influence is very powerful. She's involved
in aligning Elvis toward products and projects that reflect
what she feels will create the right image. Her reaction
to him is often different from the rest of us; it's very
personal, because Elvis is her dad. There's a real benefit
to all of us from this type of personal sensitivity.
Is Elvis' growing presence on the Internet another
way of creating a personal connection?
Elvis.com is a dream marriage between Elvis and his
fans, especially worldwide.
had the good fortune of not trying to create too much of
a commerce engine with the site and avoided a lot of the
disappointment that happened when the tech bubble burst
in the late 1990s. We built elvis.com up slowly, concentrated
on content, and now we have nearly 1 million unique visitors
a month. The average length of stay on the site is 15 to
16 minutes, compared to the industry average of about two
What kind of access will fans get from EPE's upcoming TV
special and book?
You're referring to the project currently titled "Presley
by the Presleys." The initial focus was on a general anthology
approach for the TV project. But with a lot of very creative
input from David Saltz, who is directing the special, this
far more unique concept emerged. The title pretty much says
it all. It will involve Priscilla and Lisa on a personal
level and will also include Patsy Presley, who was Elvis'
first cousin and one of his closest friends. She has never
done interviews or written books before.
it will present new, rich territory. The purpose behind
this project is to unravel more of Elvis' background - where
he came from, what influenced him, maybe help explain why
he made some of the choices he did.
companion book is being written by David Dalton, and it
will draw from the many photos, transcripts and documents
that are housed in the Graceland archives. Both [projects]
are still in flux, so we haven't set final release dates
Is there a tie-in with the upcoming CBS TV miniseries?
There is no direct tie-in, other than the fact that it is
possible because of the continued growth of interest in
Elvis Presley. The CBS miniseries will be a four- to six-hour
biopic that will focus mostly on the early part of Elvis'
career. [It focuses on the] rags to riches, melding of black
and white music, and it's set in a period that saw so much
probably will not be ready before late 2005 or early 2006.
If it's done well, it could contribute greatly to the Elvis
legacy. If it's done poorly, it could set things back a
little. Biopics are always a challenge. For instance, who
plays Elvis? Can you imagine trying to find the kind of
person who can, or would even try, to replicate the personality,
the talent, the sensuality, that Elvis had?
Is there also a documentary?
Also on our radar is a full-blown documentary that can stand
as a serious contribution to American music history. We
envision a multiple segment, Ken Burns-type documentary
that could tell the whole Elvis story, free of the commercial
demands that have to appeal to one demographic or another.
Elvis' father, Vernon, and his manager, Col. [Tom] Parker,
were both pack rats, so the Graceland archives contain tens
of thousands of photographs, documents and materials that
will support the effort. This
project is not even in the pipeline yet, so its completion
is a long way off.
What about other possible projects?
There's the ongoing work with Joe DiMuro, Vicky Sarro [VP
of product development and marketing] and the whole group
at BMG Strategic Marketing. They are doing some great things
with the masters, and I think we'll see more worldwide successes
like "Elv1s: 30 #1 Hits."
Graceland we hope to add expanded exhibits and would like
to build a much larger Heartbreak Hotel that would include
entertainment venues, convention facilities and a meeting
space. Elvis is so associated with Las Vegas that if we
can do the right thing, we can create another place for
fans to connect. When Elvis returns to Las Vegas, it has
to be a total experience from top to bottom, and it has
to be great.
Considering that close to half of Elvis' albums are sold
outside the United States, the international market must
present a huge opportunity for EPE.
Definitely. "Elv1s: 30 #1 Hits" sold two-thirds [of its
total units] outside the United States. Of course, we believe
the United States will continue to be a strong and growing
base, but considering recent trends, we would have to say
the world is our oyster. In
places like England and Australia, Elvis' following is so
strong that we're exploring everything from themed hotels
to permanent and traveling exhibits to offices.
technology is opening new doors. Japan and the Scandinavian
countries are already far ahead of us in cell phone applications
and content. We're working with Diggit Entertainment in
those areas right now.
general, working with BMG is important too, because they
have such a strong worldwide distribution network in place.
What's the biggest challenge EPE faces in maintaining Elvis'
There's the broad-based challenge of demonstrating relevance,
but that seems to be taking care of itself nicely. Fifty-three
percent of all visitors to Graceland are 35 years old or
younger. That's a great statistic. But there are irritating
challenges, like the lingering overweight caricature of
Elvis and the frustration we feel when we hear someone repeat
the old - and wrong - statement that Elvis was prejudiced
and that he ripped off black music.
from the beginning, Elvis continually explained that all
of his early influences and heroes were black musicians
and artists. He never took credit for [creating] rock'n'roll.
He said it was R&B with a new name, and he was just doing
it his way.
for being prejudiced, his friends - including many black
friends - would tell you that just wasn't true. If Elvis
were alive, he would want to set that straight most of all.
What is the most intriguing part of your job? Being part
of EPE and the responsibility of preserving the legacy of
Elvis Presley is just a joy, because what we do makes so
many people happy. There are so many different facets to
Elvis' story and so many different constituencies for the
music - different tastes, nationalities and cultures - and
we're the caretakers.
gardener analogy comes to mind. We plant new seeds, do the
weeding to protect it and preserve its unparalleled beauty.
But in the end, it's the original garden that flourishes.
For EPE, it's always about Elvis, his legacy and the music.