The rights to Elvis’ music are owned by Universal Music and his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley. Lisa Marie Presley owns 15% of those rights, while Universal Music owns 85%. However, the rights to all Elvis Presley recordings before 1973 are owned by RCA Records (owned by Sony Entertainment).
Elvis Presley is known as the “King of Rock and Roll” and is, to this day, one of the best-selling singers of all time. His legacy endures decades after his death, with people around the world continuing to enjoy his music. Elvis’ songs can be found in movies, TV shows, radio, CD, and streaming services.
In this article, I will examine who holds the rights to Elvis Presley’s music and who gets the millions of dollars his songs continue to generate today.
The RCA Records deal
Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, sold the rights to Elvis’ recordings that he had recorded until then (1973) to RCA Records. Elvis already had an already sizable back catalog and sold any future royalties from those recordings for $5.4 million. The money was split equally between Elvis and Parker.
Fortunately, the rights to his later songs were not touched by this deal and Lisa Marie Presley sold 85 percent of the rights to these songs to the billionaire investor Robert F.X. Sillerman and his company, CKX Inc., in 2004.
In addition, Sillerman gained a majority stake in the right to use Elvis’ name and image. Sillerman subsequently sold those rights to Authentic Brands Group. In April 2022, Universal Music moved in to purchase these rights, giving them a controlling stake in the rights to the songs of Elvis Presley.
When Lisa Marie Presley sold the 85% stake to Sillermen for $100 million, it may have seemed like a reasonable price to pay for the rights to such an iconic singer. But when Elvis died in 1977, his finances were in pretty bad shape.
At that time, his estate was worth only $5 million, largely due to his lavish spending habits. His deal with Parker also allowed him to collect half of his earnings, which reduced the income that the estate received.
The beneficiaries of Elvis’ will were his father Vernon, grandmother Minnie Mae, and daughter, Lisa Marie. Vernon was appointed trustee and executor.
Following his death in 1977, Elvis’ ex-wife Pricilla Presley, as her daughter’s legal guardian, took over the management of the trust along with Joseph Hanks, Elvis’s accountant, and the National Bank of Commerce in Memphis.
Together, they formed Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.(EPE) to manage Elvis’ intellectual property rights and business affairs, as well as operate Graceland, his home. Following the death of Elvis’ father and grandmother, Lisa Marie became the sole beneficiary of his estate.
Colonel Tom Parker
After the death of Elvis, his estate received a mere $1 million a year from the royalties of his songs and revenue generated from his merchandise. This was partly due to the poor decision to sell off his pre-1973 songs to RCA as well as allow his manager Parker to collect half of his income, an arrangement that Elvis, who was not money-conscious, was happy to allow. As a result of low income and a mounting tax bill, the estate was facing bankruptcy.
Elvis’s trust wasn’t prepared to let the arrangement with Parker continue and petitioned the courts. The courts found that the amount paid to Parker was extortionate given that managers usually collected a fee of 15-20%.
Parker’s handling of Elvis’ business affairs was also criticized. After several rounds of litigation, Parker was paid $2 million and prevented from collecting any Elvis-related income for 5 years.
Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.
As a result of Pricilla’s involvement, Elvis’s estate, which was worth $5 million on his death, grew in the space of 10 years to be valued at $100 million. Despite being advised to sell Graceland to avoid bankruptcy, Pricilla instead opened it to the public in 1982. Graceland was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to draw in hundreds of thousands of Elvis fans each year.
Due to the interest that Graceland generated from Elvis fans, EPE bought the shopping center across the street, which had been filled with souvenir shops. It was reopened as Graceland Plaza and also became a valuable source of income along with Graceland.
EPE engaged in many court cases against different parties to secure the rights to Elvis’ music and image. As a result of their efforts, Elvis’ estate has received a sizable income over the years. EPE has been careful to cultivate Elvis’ image as a cultural icon and maintained tight control of the use of Elvis’ image and music.
This has involved considerable litigation, with EPE estimated to have filed over a hundred lawsuits since 1979. Consequently, EPE has managed to maintain exclusive rights to Elvis’ name, songs, and likeness, ensuring that his image was correctly marketed and that his estate received all the due income.
While RCA owns the rights to all pre-1973 Elvis recordings, the rights to the rest of his song catalog are owned by Universal Music Group, with a majority stake of 85 percent. Universal also has an 85 percent stake in the rights to the use of his name and image. The remaining 15 percent stake continues to be held by his only daughter Lisa Marie Presley, who also has complete ownership of Graceland.