The Story Behind Michael Jackson Buying The Beatles’ Catalog and Angering Friend Paul McCartney

The story has been part of popular music circle for decades: Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson—two of the biggest names in music history—were on a music video shoot and McCartney told Jackson about the idea to buy up song catalogs.

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It was a good investment opportunity, McCartney told the King of Pop. But then Jackson bought up The Beatles catalog. And McCartney was pissed. But is this all true? Is this how it went down?

Let’s investigate, shall we?

The Musical Collaboration

It began with the duo’s collaboration on the 1983 song, “Say Say Say,” featured on McCartney’s album, Pipes of Peace. The two had earlier collaborated on the song “The Girl Is Mine,” which was the lead single from Jackson’s seminal 1982 record, Thriller.

That’s when McCartney talked to Jackson about investing in music publishing. And Jackson allegedly jokingly replied, “One day, I’ll own your songs.” 

Then just two years later on August 14, 1985, Jackson purchased the publishing rights to the majority of the Beatles’ catalog—some 251 songs—for $47 million, outbidding McCartney.

Understanding the Business

For those who don’t know, music publishing can be a lucrative business.

Every time a song is used in a television show or movie or some other arena, the user has to pay a licensing fee. Some of that goes to the record label, and some goes to the performer and songwriter. So, in the end, whoever owns the song, gets paid.

With the Beatles, the publishing had originally gone to McCartney and John Lennon, who wrote the majority of the tracks. The two had formed a publishing company Northern Songs Ltd. in 1964 to generate revenues from their growing catalog. So, for every time “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was used in a movie, the company got paid.

But in 1969, the British outfit Associated TeleVision was involved in a messy takeover of Northern Songs, which led McCartney and Lennon to sell off their shares of the company they’d started.

“Very early on we got managed into a little situation,” McCartney said in an interview in 1989. “It meant that whatever the lion’s share of the songs we did were taken by someone else.”

In 1985, however, those songs went back up for sale and McCartney was set to purchase them (Lennon had died in 1980). But Jackson snuck in and wielded his financial power and got the lot.

McCartney, who was also bidding on the music, felt betrayed and angered. He no longer owned his own songs and had previously started buying other music, like tracks written by Buddy Holly.

The two had forged a friendship in the 1970s, but that stopped after Jackson bought the songs.

“He won’t even answer my letters, so we haven’t talked and we don’t have that great a relationship,” McCartney explained in 2001. “The trouble is I wrote those songs for nothing and buying them back at these phenomenal sums, I just can’t do it.” 

Jackson’s response to McCartney’s request was, “Oh Paul, that’s just business.”

The Songs Up for Sale

When McCartney first gave Jackson the advice, the King of Pop got in contact with attorney John Branca, who helped Jackson buy the rights to 1960s songs he liked.

Then in 1984, Branca told him ATV was up for sale and the company owned 4,000 songs, including those 251 by the Beatles.

At the time McCartney said it was out of his price range and Yoko Ono, who is Lennon’s surviving wife, said she was fine with Jackson owning them, rather than a huge corporation.

So, Branca bid $30 million but other bids brought it up to $47.5 million.

“You can’t put a price on a Picasso… you can’t put a price on these songs, there’s no value on them,” Jackson allegedly said. “They’re the best songs that have ever been written.”

“I think it’s dodgy to do something like that,” McCartney once said of Jackson’s purchase. “To be someone’s friend, and then buy the rug they’re standing on.”

Benefit to Jackson

Jackson led an extravagant lifestyle. He had his own Neverland where he lived, just to name one larger-than-life purchase.

And the Beatles catalog provided him with some important collateral for continuing his big purchase life. While he was worth his own fortune, one of the biggest songwriters and performers of all time, it helped to have the Beatles tracks in his back pocket, both to generate money and as backing for any big loans, he might need to have taken out.

“Paul and I both learned the hard way about business,” Jackson wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, “and the importance of publishing and royalties and the dignity of songwriting.”

Jackson’s Death

A decade after the initial deal, Jackson sold 50 percent of ATV to Sony for $95 million, creating the music publishing company Sony/ATV. Today, the company owns the rights to the Beatles’ songs, as well as those from artists like Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Hank Williams, and Roy Orbison.

After Jackson’s death, at 50 years old, Sony Music took full control of the catalog seven years later with Sony/ATV agreeing to pay $750 million to the late performer’s estate in order to buy out the remaining 50 percent stake in the company.

The Beatles catalog alone has now been estimated to be worth in excess of $1 billion.

Said McCartney after Jackson died, “He was a lovely man. Massively talented and we miss him.” And during the same interview he added that after Jackson’s purchase of the catalog the two “kind of drifted apart,” but that, despite rumors, there hadn’t been “a big bust-up.”

Prior to Jackson’s death, McCartney had expressed anger that the Beatles’ songs were used commercially.

“It kind of spoils it. Just takes the edge off it. Our songs are tending to get a little commercialized now, which I’m not too wild on,” the former Mop Top said.

Did Michael Will the Songs to Paul?

“Some time ago, the media came up with the idea that Michael Jackson was going to leave his share in the Beatles’ songs to me in his will,” McCartney wrote in a statement on his website. “[It] was completely made up.”

There had been speculation as to whether the King of Pop would bury the hatchet, business-wise anyway, and will the songs to McCartney. But that was not the case.

“Don’t believe everything you read folks!” McCartney said.

Yet, following a 2017 lawsuit in U.S. court, McCartney finally reached a settlement with Sony/ATV over copyright to the Beatles catalog under the US Copyright Act of 1976, which states that songwriters can reclaim copyright from music publishers 35 years after they gave them away.

While details were not made public, a lawyer for the Beatle informed a judge that the two sides “have resolved this matter by entering into a confidential settlement agreement.” 

(PRNewsFoto/Authentic Brands Group) / The Estate of Michael Jackson

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