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Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Some day, Dad, all this won't be yours..."

This is my column from the new issue of Word
It’s almost forty years since the Beatles stopped making music. The Beatles' organisation continues to make money, however, even with two of the principals tragically dead. Once you start a business as successful as this you can't wind it up. You can only sell it on.
Neil Aspinall, who has run the Beatles' affairs for forty-seven years, has recently parted company with them and the reins have been handed to Jeff Jones, a label professional who will no doubt be charged with making the company’s priceless catalogue crack. The end of their stand-off with EMI over back royalties leaves the road open to some sort of deal with iTunes which will probably see their catalogue available online. This will be a huge story for the financial pages and will pass wholly without comment down among the humans where our iPods are already full of all the Beatles music we want.
At the same time as this went on Julian Lennon entered into a deal with a music publisher called Primary Wave that gave them the right to collect royalties on theshare of of the Lennon/McCartney catalogue that he inherited on his father's death. Bundled into the deal was an agreement whereby Primary Wave would put out Julian’s new album. Julian is now four years older than his father was when his life was cut short and at the age when financial advisors suggest laying the foundation of a substantial pension while ego whispers that he could have one last swing at his dream of being a rock star.
When Courtney Love did a similar deal with Primary Wave last year for her share of Nirvana's catalogue informed speculation estimated that she got $50 million for her pains. If that’s what you can get for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" we can only guess at what the Beatles’ big songs might be worth. Larry Mestel, the boss of Primary Wave, who have presumably got some serious investment behind them, said “I felt the combination of Courtney's creativity and the things I can add can really help in creating more value for these copyrights” which suggests all concerned are embarking on a noble adventure and not simply living high on the proceeds of somebody else’s work. But they would, wouldn’t they?
God knows we should not minimise the aimlessness that is so often the lot of those whose parent is a rock superstar but it will be interesting to watch what happens in the years to come as the authors of pop’s great works go to their graves and bequeath their precious copyrights and the immense amounts of money that flow from them to offspring who, aside from a little modelling and some real estate dealing, have never done a day’s work in their lives. The originators were uniquely driven individuals who wanted to escape from unremarkable backgrounds. Their children, on the other hand, often raised amid opulent neglect, appear to have trouble getting out of bed.
Within thirty years time the majority of the value built up by the first rock superstars will be in the hands of people who had nothing to do with earning it. If they hang on to it we will see the creation of a whole new branch of the aristocracy freed from the obligations involved in owning vast country houses or having to turn up at church. If they decide to cash in then we could imagine a future in which "properties" like the Beatles, Nirvana, Harry Potter, Bart Simpson and Joni Mitchell are traded between conglomerates.
It's happened before. Elvis Presley was worth more dead than he was when alive. Walt Disney died in 1966 but his name is still all over the company and his adjectival value is undiminished. JRR Tolkien died in 1973. In 1990 Harper Collins bought his publisher just to get their hands on the rights to his books and benefit from the merchandising boom that followed Peter Jackson's films. Only the other day his son Christopher "completed" and published his last novel The Children Of Hurin.
The potent combination of technology and greed will continue to extend the lives of songs, stories and characters in ways their creators could never have envisaged. Who’s to say that in forty years time the music of Pink Floyd, Blondie, Bob Marley, David Bowie, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, James Brown or even the Gypsy Kings will not be still part of the entertainment mix? The Beatles famously thought they might get out of the game with enough to open a couple of hairdressers shops. Nobody thought that they would be earning anything from their songs within ten years of their composition let alone within the lifetimes of their great-grandchildren. But they will and many a lawyer will grow fat on arguing claim and counterclaim. By that time they'll be best off out of it. And so will the rest of us.