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Penny Lane Is Not My Song

We’ve 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 mind.

“Damn,” 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 Sony/ATV publishing.

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 out loud.

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.

—Paul Rapp


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