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In 1982 Michael Jackson flew to England to record the song "Say, Say, Say" with former Beatle Paul McCartney at the famous Abbey Road studio. This was the second musical collaboration between Paul and Michael, the first being 1981's "The Girl is Mine" which was featured on Jackson's smash hit album "Thriller". While working on "Say, Say, Say", Paul invited Michael to stay with him and his wife Linda at their home in suburban London. One fateful night, after the three finished dinner, Paul took out a thick leather bookl and laid it out on the dining room table. This particular book listed every song and publishing right that Paul had acquired over the last 10 years. He made it clear to Michael that owning publishing rights was the only way to make really big money in the music industry. Paul further bragged that in the last year alone, he had earned approximately $40 million off his music catalogue.
"Every time someone records one of these songs, I get paid. Every time someone plays these songs on the radio, or in live performances, I get paid."
Paul also clarified that none of those earnings came from Beatles songs because amazingly, he did not own them. Ironically, this free advice would come back to bite Paul in the butt two years later when Michael purchased the entire Beatles catalogue for $47.5 million. Paul felt appropriately back stabbed and his relationship with Michael was damaged forever. But how on earth did Paul McCartney and John Lennon lose ownership of The Beatles catalogue in the first place??!!
McCartney and Michael JacksonPaul McCartney and Michael Jackson
Young Lennon & McCartney Make a Terrible Business Decision
In February of 1963, exactly one year before The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and Beatlemania swept the world, manager Brian Epstein suggested that John Lennon and Paul McCartney should form a company to protect their publishing rights. Because at the time The Beatles were still unknown, Epstein encouraged Lennon and McCartney to team up with an established publisher who could get their music to radio station managers and popular TV hosts around England. Epstein, Lennon and McCartney soon signed with veteran publisher Dick James who quickly secured The Beatles an appearance on the British pop show "Thank Your Lucky Stars". In February 1963, Dick James assisted the 23 year old Lennon and the 21 year old McCartney in forming a company called Northern Songs. Northern Songs would be 50% owned by Dick James and his partner Charles Silver, 10% owned by Brian Epstein, 20% owned by Lennon and 20% owned by McCartney. Years later McCartney would explain that they were just too young and naive to know that this was a terrible deal. They never even read the contract. Incredibly, McCartney also admitted that neither he nor John ever actually met Charles Silver.
Northern Songs now owned the copyright to 56 Beatles compositions and required that Lennon and McCartney produce a minimum of six new tracks per year until 1973. A month later, on March 22 1963, The Beatles first album "Please Please Me" debuted in England. Two months later, the album reached #1 on the UK music charts where it stayed for 30 weeks (when it was replaced by their second album "With The Beatles"). Beatlemania quickly spread throughout the world and all four band members became millionaires. And as The Beatles became rich, so did Brian Epstein, Dick James and Charles Silver.
In 1965, Dick James and Charles Silver discovered that Northern Songs could avoid a rather large capital gains tax bill by becoming a public company. When Northern Songs was listed on the London Stock Exchange, Lennon and McCartney were each left with a 15% stake that was worth $320,000 ($2.3 million in modern dollars). James and Silver still controlled 37.5% of the company worth $800,000 ($6 million today).
Young Beatles
Young George, John and Paul
Selling Out
In August of 1967, after Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose, Lennon and McCartney tried unsuccessfully to wrestle control of their songs away from Dick James and Charles Silver. James and Silver were so offended by the attempted coup that they sold their entire stake to a company called ATV Music Publishing for $2.5 million ($17 million in today's dollars). They didn't even bother to inform Lennon or McCartney. In fact, John found out about the sale from a newspaper headline while he was honeymooning with Yoko Ono. ATV was now the majority owner of 88 classic Beatles songs that had been covered by nearly 3000 different artists to date.
Paul and John still would earn 25 cents each for ever dollar ATV earned from their songs, but that was a relative pittance to what they deserved. As a consolation, ATV offered to buyout the remaining rights for $14.755 million ($100 million in today's dollars) but Lennon and McCartney refused. The duo then unsuccessfully tried to rally a group of investors to purchase ATV in a hostile takeover. To make matters worse, Lennon and McCartney were still obligated to write six new songs for ATV until 1973. Exasperated, in 1969 The Beatles agreed to sell their remaining rights to ATV for $5.738 million ($36 million today) with the stipulation that they be released from their contract immediately.
The Beatles Rolls Royce
The Beatles Cash Out
Ownership of The Beatles catalogue would remain unchanged from 1969 to 1981 when ATV was sold to an Australian business tycoon named Robert Holmes à Court. Prior to the sale, McCartney had the opportunity to purchase the catalogue from ATV for $40 million. He approached Yoko Ono to see if she wanted to split the cost, but she insisted the catalogue wasn't worth more than $20 million so they eventually declined. To his credit, at the time McCartney was personally worth hundreds of millions of dollars and could have bought the catalgue outright himself, but he feared that buying the songs on his own would make him look greedy and disrespectful of John Lennon's legacy.
Michael Jackson Makes A Move
Robert Holmes à Court was not interested in owning ATV music for the long run. He immediately fired almost every ATV employee and announced that the music side of the business was up for sale. In 1984 McCartney was again given the right to make the first offer on the catalogue, but by now he made it clear he was not interested because he thought it was "too pricey". Around this same time, Michael Jackson's long time lawyer John Branca got wind that ATV was for sale. Ever since his fateful dinner with McCartney two years earlier, Jackson had been on a publishing rights buying spree. When he heard ATV Music was for sale, Michael instructed John Branca to spend whatever it takes to acquire The Beatles catalogue…
To find out how Michael Jackson bought The Beatles catalogue then turned it into a billion dollar music empire, click the following link for part two of this story!

The article below is the second half of a story that we posted yesterday about the history of The Beatles and Michael Jackson. The previous article described everything that happened from Beatlemania to roughly 1984. During that time period, The Beatles catalogue was bought and sold a number of times and eventually ending up in the hands of Michael Jackson. We'll summarize a few important points but otherwise you don't need to read the earlier article in order to follow the story below. If you are interested in learning how one terrible business decision cost The Beatles their entire music catalogue, click the following link:
Part 1: How Paul McCartney Lost Ownership Of The Beatles Catalogue
Michael Jackson & The BeatlesMichael Jackson & The Beatles
Part 2: How Michael Jackson Bought The Beatles Catalogue
When part one of this article left off, the year was 1984 and an Australian business tycoon named Robert Holmes à Court had just announced that he was putting The Beatles music catalogue up for sale. Technically Robert Holmes à Court was selling a company called ATV Music Publishing which owned roughly 4000 songs including, most notably, a company called Northern Songs which was the music publishing arm of The Beatles. Thanks to an absolutely terrible contract that John Lennon and Paul McCartney signed in the beginning of their career, Northern Songs owned the publishing rights to more than 250 Beatles songs, including all of their most popular hits from the height of Beatlemania. By 1984, Paul McCartney and John Lennon's widow Yoko Ono had been given at least two opportunities to purchase the catalogue, but both times they passed, thinking the $40 million price tag was too high. When Robert Holmes à Court purchased ATV Music in 1984, McCartney and Ono were offered another chance to make the first bid, but once again they declined.
Meanwhile in California, a 25 year old Michael Jackson fresh off the astronomical success of Thriller, was in the midst of a two year publishing rights shopping spree. Ironically, it was Paul McCartney who first taught Michael about the publishing rights business. In 1982, while recording the song "Say, Say, Say" together in London, Michael briefly lived with Paul and Linda McCartney. After dinner one night, Paul retrieved a thick leather book from a shelf. The book, Paul explained, listed every song right that he had purchased in the previous decade. As if that wasn't impressive enough, Paul bragged that in the last year alone, he had made over $40 million in royalties ($96 million in 2013 dollars) from his song rights. When Paul was done speaking, Michael looked at him and said: "Some day I'm gonna own your songs". Paul laughed, and responded: "Great, good joke!"
Paul, Linda and Michael
Paul, Linda and Michael
Michael definitely was not joking. Between 1982 and 1984 he invested millions of dollars buying publishing rights from a wide variety of artists. His first big purchase was the entire catalogue of Sly and the Family Stone. He then bought a series of classic singles like "Great Balls of Fire", "Shake Rattle Rattle and Roll", "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "Runaround Sue". When Jackson's long time lawyer John Branca got wind that ATV was for sale in 1984, he approached Michael about making an offer. Michael instructed Branca to spare no expense in acquiring The Beatles catalogue.
The highest bid on the catalogue was $40 million, so Jackson and Branca prepared an offer that was likely to scare everyone off: $47.5 million ($106 million in 2013 dollars). ATV's owner Robert Holmes à Court tentatively accepted their offer and both sides began the process of due diligence. The proceeding negotiations between Jackson's and Holmes à Court's lawyers took 10 months and cost Jackson personally over $1 million. Jackson's legal team spent months at the US Library of Congress studying the validity of each of the 4000 song's copyrights. In total, more than a hundred lawyers were needed to generate eight different contracts until both sides finally agreed on the deal. In October of 1985 the deal was done and Michael Jackson's prediction officially came true: He now owned the entire Beatles music catalogue.
Michael Jackson now controlled the publishing rights to every Beatles songs. That meant he was free to license songs like "Yesterday", "All You Need is Love" and "Revolution" to any brand he chose. If he licensed a song for $100,000, the song writers Lennon and McCartney would still get $25,000 each, and the publisher Michael Jackson would get $50,000. In 1987, Michael infuriated Paul when he licensed the song "Revolution" to Nike for $500,000. But there was nothing Paul could do about it now.
An Empire Is Born
In 1995 Michael is approached by executives at Sony with an offer he can't refuse. Sony offers to pay Michael $95 million ($160 million in today's dollars) to merge ATV Music with their catalogue company and form a new 50/50 joint-owned publishing powerhouse. This was a great deal because not only did Michael instantly earn back nearly twice his initial investment, he now owned 50% of a much larger music publishing company that would likely grow even bigger in the future. And by the way, Michael still controlled 100% of his own songs through his separate company Mijac Music.
Between 1995 and 2005, Sony/ATV Music Publishing would grow to own over 200,000 songs. Between 2005 and 2013, the company would grow to own over two million songs including dozens of valuable catalogues and individual songs by artists like Eminem, Lady Gaga, Akon, Shakira, Beck, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan. In 2012, Sony/ATV earned an estimated $1.25 billion per year from licensing and royalties and had a net income of $500 million. Today, the total value of Sony/ATV is estimated at $2-4 billion! Even if you use the low end of that estimate, Jackson's 50% stake is worth a whopping $1 billion! Not a bad return on a $47.5 million investment.
Michael's Financial Problems And Death
Despite earning hundreds of millions of dollars from music sales, publishing, merchandise touring and more during his lifetime, shockingly by the time Michael died in 2009 he was roughly $500 million in debt. As money poured in during his life, much more poured right out. Michael's lavish lifestyle cost as much as $50 million per year just to maintain. He spent $12 million to pay off his baby-momma Debbie Rowe, another $20 million settling a child molestation case plus tens of millions more on lawyers. He also spent $19.5 million to buy Neverland Ranch, which cost $10 million per year to maintain, then spent $35 million remodeling the compound into his own private mini-Disneyland. Not to mention the countless millions he spent on Bentleys, antiques, art, clothes, chimpanzees, diamond-encrusted gloves and other trinkets. Michael also wasted between $50 and $100 million on failed movie and music projects. Combine all this with the fact that his music sales and popularity cooled in the late 1990s, and you can start to understand how by the year 2000 Michael was flat broke.
In order to continue funding his lavish lifestyle, Michael took out a $380 million loan with Bank of America using his stake in Sony/ATV as collateral. The interest on that loan ran into the tens of millions each year. Incredibly, within a few years Michael had managed to blow through the entire $380 million loan plus an additional $120 million. In other words, by the time he died in 2009, Michael was technically $500 million in debt.
Immediately after Michael died on June 25, 2009, his lawyers and accountants went to work to protect his estate. Their ultimate goal was to pay back all of Michael's debts in order to preserve his diverse business empire. The lawyers quickly sold Michael's future music rights to Sony for $250 million. They then helped produce the film "This Is It" which would eventually reap $500 million at the box office. Next, they signed licensing deals with Pepsi and Cirque du Soleil that would allow those companies to use Michael's image and music in various promotions and shows.
Amazingly, since Michael Jackson died in 2009, his estate, led by John Branca himself, has brought in over $600 million in revenue! That's more than any other living artist in that same time frame. His executors have easily paid back 100% of his debts and have secured the future of his billion-dollar music catalogue. Michael's will left 40% of his assets to his three children, 20% to charity and another 40% to his mother Katherine. Once Katherine dies, her 40% goes to the kids, giving them 80%.
So what's the lesson here? If you find a way to make a ton of money investing in song publishing rights, don't tell your friends about it!
Michael Jackson children