A look back at how Michael Jackson bought the Beatles

Aug 11, 2011

This week RBR takes a look at the money train of the music industry and the mysterious world of song royalties.

This one sounds like an urban myth, but it’s true: Michael Jackson really did acquire the rights to most of the Beatles songs. It’s a strange and sordid tale, but it’s hard to feel too sorry for people who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars …

In the early '60s, the Beatles were dismayed to find that they were paying up to 90% of their income in taxes, so they formed a company, Northern Songs, and went public on the London Stock Exchange in 1965. In 1969, the Beatles lost a buyout bid for control of the company to a group called ATV.

Enter Jackson

In 1984, ATV was put up for sale and Michael Jackson ended up out-bidding all other buyers and paid $47.5 million for the publishing rights to about 250 Beatles tunes, everything from “Eleanor Rigby” to “Revolution."

In 1995 Jackson agreed to merge with Sony Music, who paid him $95 million for the catalog. Its value today is estimated to be close to $400 million.

Paul McCartney certainly learned a lesson or two … despite losing control of his own songs, he bought the rights to about 3,000 other songs, including the Buddy Holly catalog.

Keeping it professional

The disputes didn’t keep McCartney and Jackson from working together-in 1982, the two collaborated on several songs during the “Thriller” era including “Say Say Say”, “The Girl is Mine” and “The Man.”

When Michael Jackson died in 2009, he had as much as $500 million in debts, so it’s likely that his share of the Beatles catalog will go a long way to pay those off.

Every week on “Record bin Roulette,” KPLU’s John Kessler and John Maynard put an insightful and fun spin on a century's worth of discarded vinyl. The feature is published here and airs on KPLU 88.5 every Thursday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.