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How Michael Jackson acquired the Beatles catalog: a short outline


   The Beatles' catalog was sold to Michael Jackson in 1985.
    (Photo copyright Apple Corps Ltd.)

Since the subject has been bandied the past few days with many misconceptions, here is a brief review of the events that took place that enabled Michael Jackson to buy the Beatles catalog. It's a very complex issue that this article can't completely begin to cover, so we've listed sources at the bottom that offer additional information.

The sale of Northern Songs had been bandied about for some time. EMI Music had considered, at one time, buying ATV Music, which included Northern Songs, but never made an offer.

Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, when they were working together, discussed investments in music copyrights. Jackson had commented to McCartney that he might one day buy his and John Lennon's songs. McCartney took it as a joke.

But in November, 1984, Jackson's representatives called with serious intentions. "When the ATV music publishing catalogue, which contains many Lennon-McCartney songs, went on sale, I decided to put up a bid. I consider myself a musician who is also a businessman and Paul and I had both learned the hard way about business and the importance of publishing and royalties and the dignity of song writing," Jackson was quoted as saying.

The book "Northern Songs" by Brian Southall says Jackson's lawyer talked individually to both Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney, suggesting they each each buy the catalog. Both said no. Ono was concerned about having copyrights of other Beatles' songs, while for McCartney, it was said the price was more than he expected to pay. There's no indication in the book that the two considered making a joint deal.

Nobody expected Jackson to pull it off. In fact, according to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times in a lengthy article on the Beatles catalog deal in 1985, negotiators at first thought Jackson was standing in for McCartney.  "It seems Paul's people once told one of the ATV officers that their client was interested in buying the copyrights, but that he didn't want to go through lengthy negotiations. They said, in effect, 'You go out and get your best offer and we'll pay 10% more,'" Hilburn quoted an unidentified person involved with the negotiations.

Jackson was said to have told McCartney he planned to buy ATV. McCartney has said he was never told.

The negotiations took time -- with another buyer entering and exiting the picture -- but Jackson persisted. In a note to his lawyer pictured in "Northern Songs," he writes, "John, Please not let's bargain. I don't want to lose the deal." 

He didn't.

Jonathan Morrish, former CBS UK and Sony press chief and Jackson associate says in the book "Northern Songs," "He'd (Jackson) done tracks with McCartney, they used to hang out a lot, went to the BRITs together, so I can completely understand why buying Northern Songs was something he wanted to do. It was beyond money, and Michael does not feel he ever betrayed McCartney by buying Northern Songs."

The outcome, not surprisingly, irked McCartney.

"The annoying thing is I have to pay to play some of my own songs. Each time I want to sing 'Hey Jude' I have to pay," he was quoted by the UK Mirror.

(The most complete source of information on this subject is Brian Southall's "Northern Songs: The True Story of the Beatles Publishing Empire," also available through Another excellent source is the Los Angeles Times 1985 article by Robert Hilburn, "The Long and Winding Road.")

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  • Johnny W. 5 years ago

    Would you mind creating comparing the response/feeling you have observed following Jackson's death to the events after the murder of John Lennon?
    Being a young guy (23), I've always tried to conceptualize what it must've been like after Lennon was taken. What is similar about this Jackson experience?
    And yes, I understand the obvious difference of 24-hour news coverage. Does that render the events incomparable?

  • Johnny W. 5 years ago

    I don't know why the word "creating" is in there.

  • Mic C 5 years ago

    Well, Macca did have the option of bidding. Musicians have been screwed over the years w/ the rights to their intellectual property.

  • Steve Marinucci - Beatles Examiner 5 years ago

    Mic C: Yes, he did.

  • Steve Marinucci - Beatles Examiner 5 years ago

    Johnny W: Very good question. I may address this in a column within the next day or so. Keep checking back.

  • mamunia 5 years ago

    I remember numerous interviews with Paul after the sale where he talked about approaching Yoko to join forces to bid and buy the catalog together (for obvious reasons) and her saying she wouldn't do it because she thought she could cut a better deal and get it for herself, and him implying if not saying it outright, that because of that his bid was not high enough and Jackson beat him out.

  • mva5580 5 years ago

    I think it's unfortunate that McCartney/Ono/whoever doesn't have the full rights to the catalog, but it also seems to me like they let a lot of business crap get in the way of something that should've just been common sense. And it would be a little naive of them to just think Michael Jackson, or anyone else would just step aside and let him have it when he had the opportunity himself.

    Business is business; you would think the person who took The Beatles to court so he could get free of evertyhing that comprised of would understand that.

  • HarryOatmeal 5 years ago

    In response to Johnny W's mention of 24-hour news coverage...John's death pretty much established CNN.
    The problem with either/both Paul and Yoko acquiring Northern songs was that it wasn't for sale separately. Not even MPL had enough liquid assets to acquire ATV.

  • Tom1W 5 years ago

    Here is my suspicion: I recall specifically that Paul stated publically that Yoko and Paul were to work together to get the catalog. Yoko (I recall) told Paul she thought they could get it for a good price which Paul then consulted with her and bid..later to find the MJ outbid them. Later, Yoko commented that she was glad MJ got it because she felt like she could relate to him. Did Yoko the whole time keep MJ posted on Paul's bid in advance so MJ knew what to bid to win????? Would she have done such a thing in order not to have Paul have control and MJ in her debt for her help?

  • Retro Deb 5 years ago

    Oh waaaahhh! Cry me a river, Paul & Yoko had their chance. Business is business and MJ won this one. It's really Paul's fault. Not good business thinking there.

  • Jacob 5 years ago

    A new book posted at thegoodguise at proves that John and Paul were the two witnesses that appear in The Bible in Revelation 11:3. The prophecies they delivered give details concerning what events take place in Revelation 12 and 13. It appears that, with the death of Michael, there is much talk and discussion regarding the body of works that were created by The Beatles and it would be great if you would take a look at the book; hopefully you will see that the events taking place now in this world are in line with the explanation of the two witnesses. The two witnesses need this generation to get involved to whatever degree is possible. At least the two of us can agree that it appears that The Beatles are as relevant today as ever. Jacob

  • geogi 5 years ago

    no folk's let the truth be told, paul { Told ! } michael about the business in other words that's where the money is!!!, michael was'ent joking!, paul wanted the catalog for next to nothing the man's a billionaire!, and michael was a sherd { Bussiness man } and beat him out! , Don't underestimate the next man rule #1.

  • johan cavalli 4 years ago

    Another thing. It is important that History is correct described. Obviusly George Martin thought that before 1967 The songs were joint compositions, except Yesterday that was McCartney´s. Therefore the reputation was spread for many years, initially by George Martin, that McCartney was the composer i the Beatles.
    But most hits before Yesterday were mainly composed by Lennon.

    In the book there is more evident written what McCartney composed, than what Lennon composed, as usual.

    Johan Cavalli

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