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Pay to Play Your Own Tunes? No Way!

By Kate Sims

Gather around kids, for a tale of an artist’s worst nightmare and how he may triumph against it. Lyrical genius and former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney, began in December of 2015 to buy back the publishing rights to the music he co-wrote with John Lennon. He has had to pay just to play his own music for the majority of his career, which is absurd. It’s heartbreaking and discouraging as a fellow artist to hear about a successful artist/musician who has worked so hard and is still denied the rights to his own work.

It began back in 1963, when McCartney and Lennon, along with their manager Brian Epstein and publisher Dick James, set up the Northern Songs company for publishing their lyrics. Six years later, Epstein died, and Dick James and a new partner sold their stake in the company to ATV, a UK firm. Northern Songs was a public company, which made it easy for the highest bidder to have more power over the product. As a result, Lennon and McCartney lost their rights to the songs they wrote, as reported by The Guardian. So the nightmare begins. Attempts by McCartney, Lennon, and even another manager, Allen Klein, to gain the publishing rights to the Lennon-McCartney catalogue failed.

1980 came along with the devastating death of Lennon, and McCartney took on the fight for their rights alone. The artist took another blow in 1985, when his good friend Michael Jackson outbid him for the rights to the Lennon-McCartney Catalogue. Ten years later, Sony and ATV merged, and in 2006, Jackson sold his stock in the catalogue to the publishing giant, Sony/ATV Music Publishing. One might think the rights to the catalogue are so far away that the struggle to get them is futile. However, the year of 2018 will bring a wind of change.

In 2018, the 56-year marker for copyright laws in the U.S. will McCartney an opportunity to get his music back. McCartney has already filed for 32 songs to be recaptured from the United States copyright law.  Unfortunately, filing for more is difficult. For instance, whether he wrote the song solo or not, each song is credited to  both Lennon and McCartney. Sony, who has sunk their teeth in with no signs of letting go, has already struck a deal with Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, for Lennon’s half of the catalogue. Secondly, the lyrics are tied to the  music, which belongs to the band as a whole. This may have also contributed to the failed attempts in the past to regain the rights. But every song begins with the lyrics, so it’s hard to ignore what it means to the writer to have the rights.

Also, McCartney’s bids are only valid in the U.S. usage of the Beatles’ music. These rights are a fight worth having. As a major label, Sony has the advantage of choosing who receives royalties every time a song is played.  Sony is one of the biggest distributors of materials in our mass media world. Their hands are on everything. With a band as popular as The Beatles, it’s easy to see why Sony would want those royalties to pass through them, regardless of who wants to use them.

It is also a struggle for an artist to finally have the right to play his own music.  We can all gather that McCartney is not hurting for money, so the royalty factor can come across as greedy. There is a small fraction within this tale that needs a closer look before we jump to that conclusion. Going back to 1985, when Jackson outbid McCartney for the publishing rights, not only was a golden friendship soured, but also McCartney’s humiliations began. “The annoying thing is I have to pay [Jackson] to play some of my own songs. Each time I wanted to sing, ‘Hey Jude’ I have to pay,” said McCartney. Unable to play his own creations freely is more of his motive than the royalties. After Jackson’s death, the idea that McCartney was angry with the reading of Jackson’s will, where he didn’t get his songs back, was discredited by the artist by saying, “I got off that years ago… I feel privileged to have hung out and worked with Michael. His music will be remembered forever and my memories of our time together will be happy ones.” A great statement from the man who also said, “Let It Be.”

Hopes higher than before, McCartney starts on his journey, resilient as ever, to gain back whatever he can. Who knows, maybe in the next two years, McCartney may get his hands on more of the 192 songs he wrote beside Lennon. In retrospect, the rights to the publishing of any work is terribly important. It could be the difference between being paid for your work and paying to use your work.

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