Before he died last June at age 50, Jackson, a prolific songwriter, left dozens of unreleased recordings that are sure to be in high demand. Those include studio sessions from some of his best albums and recently recorded songs made with the likes of Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am.
Under a deal officially announced Tuesday, Sony has guaranteed Jackson's estate $200 million for 10 projects over the next seven years. One of them, a movie and album called "This Is It," was already completed. If certain conditions are met, the payment could rise to $250 million.
Since Jackson's death, estate co-administrator John McClain, a childhood friend and Jackson producer, has combed through boxes of tapes and recordings Jackson left behind. McClain and the other co-administrator, John Branca, who cut the Sony deal, each stand to make 5 percent on every new dollar of revenue brought into the estate.
McClain found about 60 songs in various forms that have never been released, according to people familiar with the songs, who spoke on condition of anonymity because what will be done with the material remains in flux.
Even if only half of them are commercially viable, that would be enough for two or three albums. And some songs could also be packaged with already-heard material. That likely wouldn't detract from a new album's value. It might even add to it, because fans have been flocking to known commodities in music.
For example, 14 remastered albums from The Beatles catalog sold 13 million copies worldwide in the four months after they were released last September. Bob Seger's "Greatest Hits," an album that came out in 1994, was the best-selling catalog album of the last decade, with 9 million albums sold to date.
Jackson's own two-disc set that accompanied the concert rehearsal footage in "This Is It" has sold 5 million copies, and it had only one new song. That was the title song, which Jackson wrote with Paul Anka around the time the "Thriller" album was becoming a smash hit.
With the album selling for $10 to $14, the revenue generated from sales is already well beyond the tens of millions of dollars needed to cover the per-project guarantees Sony is promising.
"He always said his children would never have anything to worry about because he had volumes of songs to release," said Raymone Bain, who began representing Jackson during his child molestation trial in 2005, in an interview Tuesday.
Bain, who is also suing the estate for fees, said Jackson told her he had "thousands of recordings" that he wanted to aim at a youthful audience, and spent nights during the trial writing new tunes as therapy.
"He wanted to prove to a new demographic group that he was still a major player in the industry," she said. "That's why he added Akon and Fergie and will.i.am to the 25th anniversary recording of `Thriller."'
Releases from well-established artists have other advantages. An older fan base is more accustomed to buying whole albums than are younger fans familiar with free song-swapping online. A long sales history also makes it easier to evaluate what catalogs are worth.
"It's unusual for a deal like that not to make money for a distributor," said Lawrence Kenswil, an entertainment attorney at Loeb & Loeb in Los Angeles and former executive with Universal Music Group. "It's a safer bet than betting on the future of unknown artists."
Speculation on exactly what unreleased songs exist (and how good they are) has been rampant since the King of Pop's death. Many who collaborated with Jackson in his later years have discussed their work with him, including will.i.am and Akon, who is a Senegalese R&B singer.
Tommy Mottola, who from 1998 to 2003 was chairman and CEO of Sony Music, said last summer that Jackson's posthumous releases could outsell even those from Elvis Presley, whose voice has graced around 300 compilation albums since his death in 1977.
Several unreleased Jackson songs have leaked, though many of them are in dubious forms. A 24-second clip of the song "A Place With No Name" was on TMZ.com shortly after Jackson's death. A track Jackson recorded with Lenny Kravitz, "Another Day," also got out last year, though Kravitz said it wasn't a proper, finished version of the song.
Whatever the unreleased material comprises, the Sony deal suggested that repurposing Jackson material across several formats - from DVDs to video games - will be of particular importance.
Last week, Sony Music's Legacy Recordings, in partnership with Jimi Hendrix's estate, released a new album of Hendrix material nearly 40 years after his death. "Valleys of Neptune," which cobbled together unfinished recordings mostly from 1969, has received largely positive reviews.
But even that album, which follows many other posthumous releases from Hendrix, is just a part of a new legacy launch. The Experience Hendrix, which is led by Hendrix's stepsister Janie Hendrix and oversees his musical estate, also rereleased Hendrix's "Live at Woodstock" in Blu-ray and regular DVD and the three Jimi Hendrix Experience albums. There's also a Hendrix "Rock Band" video game in the works, as well as a larger anthology collection.
The Hendrix reboot could very well serve as a mere rehearsal for what Sony has in store for Jackson.