The Beatles sang "Money can't buy me love," but $60 million might get you the copyrights to that song and most of the other Beatles tunes written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
The lucrative Lennon-McCartney song catalogue is part of ATV Music, a big music publishing company that has been put up for sale by Associated Communications Corp., a large British entertainment conglomerate. ACC considers $60 million "a realistic price" for the company, according to Sam Trust, chief executive officer of ATV Music.
The Beatles lost control of the songs in a complicated takeover fight in 1969, although they continue to collect royalties on the tunes.
McCartney himself is among the bidders for the rights to his old songs, Trust says, and may be joined in his bid by Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono. The two made an unsuccessful $40 million offer three years ago for the rights to the Lennon-McCartney songs.
But McCartney faces tough competition. Other contenders include CBS Inc.; Coca-Cola Co.; Lawrence Welk's music-publishing house; EMI, the large British recording and publishing concern; and a number of other private investors and entertainment industry companies, Trust said.
ACC had decided that "the first serious bidder that comes in with an irrevocable bid at $60 million gets it," Trust said. "Well, there are several bids at that price." As a result, the final selling price might be bid higher. A decision will probably be made soon, he added.
The Lennon-McCartney catalogue includes about 180 songs, including such well-known tunes as "Yesterday," "Michelle" and "Hey Jude." ATV Music's other holdings include a wide variety of song titles, among them Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally" (which the Beatles also recorded), Kenny Rogers' "Lucille," and the recent Pointer Sisters' hit, "Jump."
The rights cover the words and lyrics themselves, not individual recordings, and the owner of the rights receives royalties whenever a song is recorded or performed. Therefore, songs as popular as the Beatles tunes are steady income-producers. Trust said the Lennon-McCartney songs account for about half of ATV Music's $15 million in annual revenue. "It's an annuity; it continues to pay," he said.
The Beatles' copyrights were originally controlled by a company called Northern Songs, with the songwriters and the company splitting the songs' royalty payments of 6 1/4 percent of the list price of every record sold. Lennon and McCartney each held 15 percent of Northern Songs, the other Beatles, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, held smaller fractions, and their management team also got stock in the company. For several years in the late '60s, about 25 percent of the company's stock was publicly traded in Great Britain.
In 1969, near the end of the Beatles' existence, the group tried to acquire complete control of Northern Songs. But they were thwarted by a coalition of investors who sold their shares to ACC's predecessor, Associated Television Corp., owned by British impresario Sir Lew Grade. ATV gained control of Northern Songs, and the Beatles, frustrated, ultimately sold their holdings in the company to Grade. In all, Grade paid about $19 million for the Beatles catalogue. Lennon described the machinations as "Monopoly with real money."
McCartney, with Ono, offered Grade a reported $40 million for the Northern Songs catalogue in 1981, but Grade rejected the offer as too low. A few months later, Grade sold most of ACC to Robert Holmes a Court, an Australian businessman.
Earlier this year, McCartney and Ono lost a suit to increase their royalty payments from the Northern Songs catalogue on songs recorded from 1965 to 1974, but last month, they settled a similar claim on more recent royalties, reportedly receiving an improved payment rate.
If McCartney succeeds in buying back his most famous creations, it would add to an already impressive music empire controlled by the ex-Beatle. In recent years, McCartney has invested deeply in music publishing, amassing copyrights to hundreds of well-known songs, including "Stormy Weather," "Sentimental Journey," the songs of seminal rock star Buddy Holly and the scores of the Broadway hits "A Chorus Line," "Annie" and "La Cage aux Folles."
"I like songs, so I buy them," McCartney has said, and the investments have helped him accumulate a personal fortune estimated at $500 million, with income of about $50 million a year. But he has so far been unable to gain control of the rights to the songs he'd most dearly like to have: the Beatles' hits.
"Morally, it is madness that Paul does not own any of the songs he wrote with John," McCartney's wife, Linda, told the London Daily Express in 1981. "To Paul, they are a part of him just as his children are."