Licensing Plan Gives Fresh Plays to Beatles
By BEN SISARIO
Published: August 14, 2013
As Paul McCartney closed the Grammy Awards last year with an all-star Beatles medley, Owen Husney, a veteran music executive, read Twitter in horror. In one message after another, young people asked a question that could give a baby boomer a heart attack:
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The Beatles performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1965.
“I was so angry,” said Mr. Husney, who is best known as one of Prince’s first managers. “But I realized it was only natural. There is a whole audience born around 1990 that knows the Beatles, but is wholly unfamiliar with their writing.”
In response, Mr. Husney has teamed with a small music publisher on a project to introduce the songs of the Fab Four to a younger generation. One project is an album of Beatles covers by young bands, but if Mr. Husney and his partner, Herb Jordan, are successful, they will also get more Beatles songs onto television and in the movies, something that has long been difficult — and correspondingly expensive — for Hollywood producers.
Their efforts are the result of a little-known kink in the Beatles’ business history. While the publishing rights for most of the band’s work is owned by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, a joint venture between Sony and the estate of Michael Jackson, the North American rights to six early songs were held separately, by the Pincus family of publishers in New York. Round Hill Music, a small publisher, and the Adage Group, an intellectual property rights firm, bought these rights for an undisclosed sum in a deal announced early last year. (Music publishing concerns the copyrights for songwriting, not recordings.)
The new owners said they wanted to find new ways to make money from the songs, including film and television, which has become a crucial outlet for artists old and new as record sales fade. So Mr. Husney and Mr. Jordan, the chief executive of the Adage Group, began commissioning covers of the six songs, over which they would have all necessary rights.
The first example of the project’s licensing strategy was heard on Sunday night’s episode of the HBO drama “True Blood”: a version of “I Wanna Be Your Man” — a song that John Lennon and Mr. McCartney wrote for the Rolling Stones in 1963 and also recorded with the Beatles — played by Mobley, an indie band from Austin, Tex.
The album, “Beatles Reimagined,” will be released on Oct. 1 by Community Music, and features “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and other early Beatles songs played by mostly underground bands like Badwolf and the Well Pennies. The best known of the bunch is Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
“Anyone can rerecord the Beatles,” Mr. Jordan said. “What it really comes down to is that we control both the publishing and the masters as a one-stop shop. For music supervisors, that is an ideal situation.”
Some Grammy tweets aside, the Beatles are hardly forgotten. The group’s compilation album “1,” released in 2000, was the best-selling album in the United States in the first decade of the 2000s, and it has sold more than 30 million copies around the world. But Beatles songs rarely appear on film and television both because of their price and because of the complex checklist of approvals needed.
For most Beatles songs, a user would need the approval of Sony/ATV, the publisher; EMI, the record label; and the Beatles and their estates.
Last year “Mad Men” paid an estimated $250,000 to use the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”; Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, said it took him several years to get the necessary approvals to use a Beatles song.
For the “Beatles Reimagined” songs, however, the process is much simpler. Adage and Round Hill control the publishing rights, and Mr. Jordan and Mr. Husney, as executive producers of the project, also control the recording rights. Mr. Jordan said that for these early songs, the approval of the Beatles was not necessary, although he added — choosing his words carefully — that they strove to maintain good relationships with all the various parties in the Beatles camp.
Gary Calamar, the music supervisor for “True Blood,” declined to say how much money changed hands in the deal for Mobley’s version of “I Wanna Be Your Man.” (So did Mr. Jordan.) But he made it clear that it was a lot easier this way.
“Of course we are paying a lot less for this master than for the Fab Four,” Mr. Calamar said. “This did cut out a lot of the red tape.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 16, 2013
A picture caption on Thursday with an article about licensing plans for six early Beatles songs misstated the year in which the Beatles are shown performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and referred incorrectly to the appearance. The picture is from 1965, and thus does not show them in their American television debut, which was Feb. 9, 1964, on Mr. Sullivan’s show.
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