(photo: Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images)
People think Michael Jackson blew his money on merry-go-rounds, mansions, and monkeys. True, the King of Pop (who would have turned 57 years old last week) spent lavishly and deeply. In the years before his death, Jackson was crawling back from crippling debt that saw him lose his 2,800-acre Neverland Valley Ranch and schedule an auction of his memorabilia (the auction was called off at the last minute). His estate is still fighting off creditors six years later. As recently as last year, the IRS claimed the Michael Jackson Estate owes $505 million in taxes and an additional $197 million in penalties.
Still, despite his financial overreaching, Jackson was a serious dealmaker. And his purchase of the ATV music catalog — home to the Beatles’ compositions —30 years ago this month (on Sept. 6, 1985) stands as one of the greatest music deals of all time. It’s a testament to Jackson’s shrewdness, patience, and perseverance. It’s also a cautionary tale of mixing friendship and business.
First, a publishing primer…
Music publishing refers to the copyright of a song composition. The Beatles’“Yesterday”was recorded by the Fab Four, but the song was written by Lennon and McCartney (really McCartney, but that’s another story). In this day and age, it is pretty common for songwriters to own and control their own publishing (e.g., copyrights), but in the early days of the music business, it was equally as common for naive artists —even the Beatles — to sign contracts that unwittingly gave their copyrights away. Such was the case with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who lost control of their music publishing by 1969 through a series of dubious and deceitful transactions (although the two continued to earn royalties as songwriters).
Flash-forward to 1981. Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney are new besties. They would soon co-write a No. 1 hit, “Say Say Say.”(The B-side: “Ode to a Koala Bear.” Seriously.)
On this particular night, Jackson is hanging out in McCartney’s house. Instead of showing off a fancy car or expensive bottle of wine, McCartney flashes his binder containing names of songs he has purchased. Macca owns the Buddy Holly songs. He owns Broadway tunes. He’s a man who has learned from his early mistakes.
Jackson took note.
McCartney would recount the episode a few years later, while the wounds were still fresh.
Over the next four years between 1981 and 1985, the King of Pop went on a private buying spree.
He bought the publishing to “Runaround Sue.”
He bought he publishing to “The Wanderer.”
And then, he bought the Beatles.
It wasn’t easy. By 1985, the catalog was owned by an
Australian billionaire named Robert Holmes à Court. He wasn’t too fond of Americans and he wasn’t in a rush to sell. Jackson finally got Holmes à Court’s attention with $47.5 million and a private concert in Perth. The Australian businessman would leave one song out of the catalog: “Penny Lane”stayed with him as gift to his daughter of the same name.
Predictably, the purchase of the Beatles catalog put an end to McCartney and Jackson’s friendship. He gave an updated telling of being outwitted by Jackson in 2009. He’s laughing a bit more, but the scars are still there.
Lessons learned 30 years later? Number one: Jackson’s investment is now valued at close to $1 billion. It is arguably the most enduring part of his legacy apart from his own recording career. It certainly was the main thing keeping his estate afloat. The dude was shrewder than people realize. Number two: Be careful when mixing business and friendship.
But McCartney may have the last laugh after all. The 1976 Copyright Act returns publishing rights to songwriters after 56 years. This means Lennon and McCartney (or their estates) start getting their songs back in 2018, until they all return in 2026. Hopefully, the Beatle kids have learned from their parents’ mistakes.
(With acknowledgment to the June 2, 2014 Forbes article “Buying the Beatles: Inside Michael Jackson’s Best Business Bet” by Zack O’Malley Greenburg. A must-read.)