How Michael Jackson outbid Paul McCartney to own the publishing rights to all The Beatles music
On August 14th, 1985, Michael Jackson astonishingly paid a whopping $47.5 million to own the entire back catalogue of material by The Beatles, a move which angered Paul McCartney no end when he was the very person who told Jackson about the auction in the first place and, quite rightly, felt betrayed.
Jackson and McCartney’s friendship began in the 1970s when two of the greatest forces that music has ever seen combined to chew the fat and, on occasion, talk business. Their first meeting began when the former Beatle offered the King of Pop the chance to buy ‘Girlfriend’ for his upcoming album. Although Macca ended up releasing the track himself with Wings, he and Jackson immediately struck up a friendship which would last all the way until 1985.
McCartney even enlisted Jackson to appear on two track’s on his 1983 album Pipes of Peace and, during the recording process, Macca gave his collaborator some advice that he’d grow to forget. He reportedly told Jackson about the lucrative business of music publishing which he had begun to dabble in after losing his stake in Northern Songs, the publishing company that he and John Lennon had set in the late 1960s.
As Macca wasn’t making any money from Beatles songs, he decided to make up for this lost income by buying other artists publishing rights such as the late Buddy Holly’s—to which Jackson jokingly replied: “One day, I’ll own your songs”.
Following McCartney’s advice, Jackson then got in contact with attorney John Branca who helped him buy the rights to 1960s songs that he was fond of. This was all a warm-up exercise for Jackson, however, when in 1984 when Branca told him that music publishing company ATV was for sale. The company owned the rights to 4,000 songs which included 251 by The Beatles. The attorney asked both Yoko Ono and McCartney if they were interested in ATV, with Macca saying it was out of his price range while Ono said she was fine with Jackson owning the songs rather than a huge corporation.
Branca initially bid $30 million on Jackson’s behalf but because of interest from other parties, the singer encouraged the attorney to increase the bid on multiple occasions before striking a deal for $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 reportedly said. “They’re the best songs that have ever been written.”
Jackson and McCartney’s friendship reached breaking point following this with the former Beatle feeling somewhat betrayed that someone he considered a friend would profit from the songs that he poured his heart and soul into. “He won’t even answer my letters, so we haven’t talked and we don’t have that great a relationship,” McCartney revealed 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.”
It’s a shame that finances ruined a relationship between these two bonafide stars who previously shared a great bond and, in a lesson not to mix business with pleasure, McCartney discovered the hard way.