Lane Is Not My Song
all said it, or at least thought it. A confluence of factors,
an unguarded moment, maybe a few drinks. Then the familiar
song starts to play; perhaps it’s “In My Life,” or “Blackbird,”
or “A Day in the Life,” or even “Hey Bulldog.” It hits you
hard, and it causes deep blue ripples in the tissues of your
you say to no one in particular. “I can’t believe that perverted
little noseless freak owns all those songs.” You exhale
in resignation. “Just ain’t right.”
The news last week that Michael Jackson was peddling his interests
in the Beatles catalog caused no small amount of joy among
Beatles fans around the world. After all, it was about 20
years ago today that Michael Jackson bought “Yesterday.” But
what, exactly, does it mean?
For one thing, this has nothing to do with the Beatles recordings.
Those are owned by record companies. All this Michael Jackson
hoopla has to do with the ownership of the Beatles songs,
the musical compositions created by Lennon and McCartney,
pursuant to their gentlemen’s agreement that every song they
wrote while the Beatles were together would be credited to
“Lennon and McCartney.”
To understand what’s going on, you need a little understanding
of the arcane world of music publishing. Very basically, when
a songwriter assigns rights to a song to a publisher, the
songwriter is giving the publisher half of the financial
interests to the song, in exchange for the publisher exploiting
the song. The publisher gets other artists to record the song,
and pushes the songs to TV, movies, and advertisers, etc.
The publisher is also in charge of collecting royalties around
the world related to public performances of the songs. Anyone
performing the song publicly (live in concert, recordings
on the radio, etc.) hypothetically must pay a royalty to the
publisher of the song for the privilege. It’s a big job, and
it can be a lot of money. But keep in mind that the songwriters
usually get half of that money.
Lennon and McCartney assigned their publishing rights to a
company called Northern Songs in 1963, and in 1969 Northern
Songs was gobbled up by a larger publishing company called
ATV. So, assuming that Lennon and McCartney’s deal was like
the standard industry deal (and I’ve seen nothing to suggest
otherwise), it appears that Paul and John kissed away half
of their song rights right from the git-go.
One night in the early ’80s, Michael Jackson was having dinner
with Paul McCartney, and the Walrus started bragging about
spending his extra money buying the publishing rights to songs
he liked, like a bunch of Buddy Holly songs. Jackson, who
had a little extra money of his own, decided this was a cool
thing, and started buying the publishing rights to songs he
liked, like a bunch of Sly Stone and Dion songs.
Then in 1984, the company that owned the publishing rights
to the Beatles songs, ATV, went on the block. Apparently Jackson
had more extra money than anybody else, as he outbid McCartney,
Richard Branson, and a slew of other rich bastards for the
ATV catalog of songs. This is how Michael Jackson came to
own the publishing rights to the Beatles song catalog.
About 10 years later, Jackson merged ATV with Sony’s considerable
music publishing company, and now has a 50-percent share in
Because the publishing company owns only half of the rights
to a song, with the other half retained by the songwriter,
this means that Jackson currently owns half of half of the
financial interests in the Beatles catalog. So, if a song
like “Can’t Buy Me Love” makes a dollar, Sony gets a quarter,
Jackson gets a quarter, McCartney gets a quarter, and Lennon’s
estate (that would be Yoko) gets a quarter.
See? It’s not as bad as you probably thought.
And through these mergers and acquisitions, Jackson owns a
nice chunk of a whole lot more than just Beatles songs. Go
to www.sonyatv.com and check out what he owns. Cat Stevens.
Neil Diamond. Bob Dylan. Joni Mitchell. Leonard Cohen. Babyface.
The lil’ bugger owns a piece of “Bootylicious,” for crying
Needless to say, while Sony/ATV generates a ton of money every
year, apparently it’s not coming in fast enough to pay Jackson’s
bills. Monkey food, Jesus Juice, and high-caliber defense
attorneys are expensive! So, rumor has it, he’s looking to
dump at least part of his Sony/ATV publishing holdings to
raise some quick cash.
Before you recharge your PayPal account and make a bid, keep
in mind that Jackson’s stake in Sony/ATV is worth an estimated
half-billion dollars, and chances are that Sony has
a contractual right to match any outside offers.
And don’t cry for McCartney, who no doubt is in the game to
get his rights back. Take a look at his publishing company
(www.mplcommunications.com) and see what he owns these days:
Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Ira Gershwin, Bernie Williams.
(OK, maybe owning Bernie Williams’ publishing isn’t so lucrative,
but you gotta admit, it’s pretty cool; Sir Paul can probably
score decent box seats at Yankee Stadium with one phone call.)
McCartney’s doing all right.
And by all reports, so’s Yoko.