The clock is ticking quickly now on the sale of the Beatles' songs to Sony Music.
I am told that Sony Music Publishing's President Richard Rowe is now in constant contact with Michael Jackson and his representatives. The reason? It's time for Jackson to relinquish his half of the Beatles' song catalog to Sony. (Jackson bought the catalog in 1985 from Sir Lew Grade's estate for $47.5 million. He sold half of it to Sony in 1991 for a reported $100 million.)
A nevertheless cash-strapped Jackson, as noted here and in other places for the last couple of years, borrowed $200 million from lenders in the mid-90s and used Sony as the note holder. Jackson — with debts incurred from out-of-court legal settlements and high personal expenses — needed the big bucks. Sony was more than willing to accommodate him.
Jackson's only collateral for such a loan was his 50 percent ownership in the Beatles' — meaning John Lennon and Paul McCartney's — nearly invaluable collection of hit songs. The catalog is valued at between $400 and $600 million and is the richest song catalog of any kind. "Yesterday" ranks as one of the most-played songs live and on the radio some 35 years after it was first released.
How rich and pervasive is the Beatles' inventory? "Let It Be," "Michelle," "Hey Jude," "And I Love Her," and "Penny Lane" all rank on the top of BMI's lists of three million or more all-time airplays. An astounding 14 more Lennon-McCartney compositions have 2 million airplays. An additional 20 or so Beatle tunes rank as BMI's "million-airs."
That comes to a total of 40 songs, or roughly a quarter of the total catalog.
Jackson had counted on sales of his Invincible album to bail him out of his debts. But Invincible — now in the bottom half of the record charts — has been a bust in the U.S. with far fewer than 2 million copies sold.
"Sony will either make him a cash offer for the catalog or just call the note," says a source familiar with the situation. "But it's going to happen. Richard Rowe is on the phone with them all the time."
Sony's fiscal year ends March 31, which is impetus for Rowe to work out the deal quickly. Sony Corp.'s stock price is just about half of what it was last May. The addition of such a rich asset as the Beatles would do a lot to — as McCartney once wrote — take a sad song and make it better.
Why, you might ask, doesn't much-publicized Beatle billionaire Paul McCartney step in and buy the songs? He's made two attempts in the last 20 years, but in each instance he and Yoko Ono, John Lennon's widow, were unable to come to any agreement about partnership. McCartney thinks that "Yesterday," for example, should carry only his name since he wrote it himself without Lennon. Ono has insisted that the songwriting duo's original agreement — that their names appear on all their songs together regardless of authorship — continue in place.
Regardless of who owns the catalog, by the way, the publisher still has to split the profits with the songwriters. So McCartney and Lennon's estate will still realize huge amounts of money once Sony takes over. Indeed, Lennon's estate, courtesy of copyright laws, will get an even higher portion than McCartney.
It's good to be J-Lo this week in Billboard. It's bad to be Jacko, in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
Ironically, they're on the same label, too: Epic Records, a division of Sony Music.
Michael Jackson's single, "Butterflies," is at lowly No. 35 this week on the Billboard Top 100.
Jennifer Lopez's single, "Ain't It Funny," is at No. 1.
Both singles are Album Cuts, which means that there is no actual physical single for customers to purchase in stores — that's so old-fashioned. If there were a CD or cassette single (forget 45's with the hole in the middle), then SoundScan would actually be able to count the number sold, the way they do with albums.
But with Album Cuts, the only way to measure a single track's popularity is by radio play.
In Billboard, that's where those singles stand, however.
But in Radio & Records, a trade publication that only measures radio play, the charts tell a different story.
In R&R, "Butterflies" is No. 1 on Urban Adult Contemporary radio stations. It's No. 9 on the regular Urban radio chart.
In R&R, "Ain't It Funny" is No. 1 on CHR (Contemporary Hit Radio)/Rhythmic, No. 6 on Urban.
You tryin' to figure that out? Me too.
According to R&R, Maxwell, Alicia Keys and Usher all follow Jackson on that Urban AC chart.
In Billboard, Maxwell is absent altogether, Keys is No. 30, and Usher is No. 7.
That's a head scratcher, isn't it? It makes you wonder: Ain't it funny about J-Lo?
Of course, the one thing the J-Lo single has in common with other hits on the charts is a Puffy-like producer named Ja Rule, whose own label is called Murder Inc. That label is owned and distributed by Interscope/Universal Records. Ja Rule also has the No. 2 single on R&R's CHR/Rhythmic chart with "Always on Time," sung by J-Lo's back-up singer, Ashanti. "Always" is also No. 2 on Billboard's Top 100.
I thought maybe if you looked at Usher's single, I'd be able to rationalize the charts. Usher is No. 7 in Billboard, but he's No. 19 on R&R's Urban chart, and No. 8 on their CHR/Rhythmic chart.
Of course, Usher's is one of the few singles you can actually purchase in a store. That might help.
You might think that Billboard's top 3 on the Top 100 would be the top 3 on R&R's CHR/Pop chart. That's the equivalent of what used to be Top 40 radio. Those singles are by Linkin Park, Nickelback and No Doubt.
But in Billboard, those singles rank at 4, 3 and 5 respectively. They're all outdistanced by "Funny" and "Time" which are at Nos. 7 and 8 on the equivalent R&R chart.
So what's so funny about "Ain't It Funny"? For one thing, it's a remixed version produced by the clever Ja Rule to sound exactly like … his remixed version of Lopez's "I'm Real," which was already No. 1 inexplicably for several weeks. Even though the original "Funny" was a much faster tempo song on the original version, now it might as well be a part two of "Real."
Now, ain't that funny?
Sad news: Mary Stuart, the great, original soap opera star of Search for Tomorrow, passed away on Friday. She was 76 and had been battling cancer. She will be sorely missed.
Stuart was the star of Search from its debut in 1951 to its end in 1986. More recently she'd been filling in on another CBS/Procter & Gamble soap, Guiding Light. In real life she was responsible for putting together several important literacy programs.
I met Mary Stuart a number of times. Her daughter, Cynthia, used to be an editor at Esquire magazine. I also visited the set of Search with an actor friend in the early '80s. She was not at all like the egotistical soap actress lampooned in the movie Soapdish, but really unaffected and a lot of fun. Audiences loved her and identified with her because they sensed she was one of them.
Soap operas as a genre are almost over now. The closed world of egotistical soap producers (truly more diva-like than the actors at this point) has conspired to kill off the audiences faster than they kill off the characters. (Dead soap characters have a knack for resurrection.)
Unlike the characters though, the audience doesn't come back once it's been eliminated.
How doubly sad. The New York soaps especially fed movies and theatre and were a training ground for young talent. Meg Ryan, Ray Liotta, Susan Sullivan, Ryan Phillippe, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, and Steven Weber are just a few of those names. Flashdance's Michael Nouri got his start working with Stuart on Search, a show that churned out dozens of prime-time actors including Susan Sarandon and Lee Grant (who was fired by the show's sponsor during the '50s blacklist).
Without the shows — and that day is coming over the next decade — a great resource will be lost forever.