Michael Jackson's $47.5-million purchase of the Beatles' song collection last month was the climax of 10 months of intense, complicated and confusing on-again, off-again negotiations. The package--of which the Beatles music was only part of the nearly 4,000-song ATV Music catalogue--is believed to be the most expensive publishing purchase ever by an individual.
The maneuverings were filled with humorous sidelights and dramatic cliffhangers. And there were a lot of surprises. Negotiations became so snarled in May that Jackson's representatives walked away from the talks and refused to return calls for nearly a month--even though they'd already spent more than $1 million and hundreds of hours in their quest to realize Jackson's dream of owning the Beatles music.
Calendar pieced together a history of the negotiations through several sources. The normally secretive Jackson gave Calendar access to his advisers and negotiators. We also spoke with agents for the reclusive Robert Holmes a Court, the Australian tycoon who owns the songs.
Michael Jackson was in great spirits when Paul McCartney invited him to London a few years ago to work together on a record. He loves the Beatles' music, especially such endearing McCartney melodies as "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby."
They spent several days at famed Abbey Road Studios, scene of legendary Beatles sessions, and came up with the lilting "Say, Say, Say," which eventually went to No. 1 in the United States.
Jackson stayed at a hotel that, as irony would have it, was across the street from ATV Music, the publishing company that owned the Beatles catalogue of more than 200 songs. He would meet McCartney at Abbey Road around noon, and the two threw ideas back and forth while McCartney sat at the piano.
Jackson usually ate dinner at McCartney's house, a Tudor-styled residence situated on nearly 1,000 acres an hour's drive from the heart of London. Sometimes they would end up in the kitchen with McCartney's wife, Linda, and their children--all helping to cook.
One night McCartney showed Jackson a thick, bound notebook filled with song titles. Jackson knew that McCartney had bought numerous song catalogues, including the works of Buddy Holly.
Jackson, never one to hide his emotions, became more excited as he turned the pages. He wanted to know more about owning songs: How do you buy them? What do you do with them after you have them?
The conversation moved on to other matters, but Jackson couldn't get the song catalogues out of his head.
Soon after, Jackson met with his attorney, John Branca, in the den of the Jackson family home in Encino. They were supposed to talk about re-signing with BMI, the performance rights organization that collects songwriter fees for radio, TV and live performances. At the end of the meeting Jackson told Branca, "I want to buy some copyrights, like Paul."
Over the next few months, Branca came up with lists of songs (copyrights) that were for sale. Jackson ended up buying the Sly Stone collection, which includes such pop-soul gems as "Everyday People" and "Everybody Is a Star." He also purchased the Double Diamond package that features Len Barry's "1-2-3," and the Soul Survivors' "Expressway to Your Heart," songs Jackson has liked since his pre-teen days. Among other acquisitions were two Dion hits: "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue."
Those purchases cost Jackson less than $1 million.
Branca realized that Jackson was ready for a larger move. He mentioned Combine Music, whose song catalogue includes many of the prized Kris Kristofferson hits (including "Help Me Make It Through the Night") and Tony Joe White's "Polk Salad Annie." But Jackson passed. He only wanted songs that meant a lot to him, so he declined to bid on all but three of the 40 catalogues presented to him over the last three years.
By the beginning of 1984, Jackson was engulfed setting up the "Victory" tour. The matter of catalogues faded into the background--until his September meeting with Branca in Philadelphia.
Branca flew regularly on weekends during the lengthy "Victory" tour to meet with Jackson and the entertainer's manager, Frank Dileo, about business details, ranging from merchandising to various tour disputes.
The sessions, held in Jackson's hotel room after the concerts, frequently lasted two hours or more. Unlike pop stars who don't enjoy business matters, Jackson is actively involved in all facets of his career because he knows how many artists have been ripped off financially and misguided artistically by outsiders.
At the end of the last year's September meeting in Philadelphia, Branca had a surprise for Jackson. The attorney said casually, "By the way, the ATV catalogue is available."