Interview with Jack Soden - Elvis: A Family Franchise
The 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, Priscilla.
With 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. Soden 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' reach.
"It's 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. During 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.
How 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 and licensing?
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.
Merchandise 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.
We 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 and cultures.
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.
We 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 minutes.
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. Altogether, 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.
The 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 yet.
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 cultural change. It 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."
At 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. Also, 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.
In 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' image?
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.
Right 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.
As 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.
The 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.
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