Did the Beatles Get Screwed?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 4 2013 2:25 PM

Did the Beatles Get Screwed?

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Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. All last month we looked back at Please Please Me, which the Beatles recorded 50 years ago in February. It was toward the end of that same month that they started their own publishing company, Northern Songs.

On Feb. 22, 1963, the Beatles made what many consider the biggest business blunder of their career: They signed away a majority interest in their songwriting, to a struggling music publisher with no track record, for absolutely nothing.

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 Decades later, McCartney would refer to the agreement that created their publishing company, Northern Songs, as a “slave contract.” Harrison would mock its terms in an outtake from Sgt. Pepper’s, singing “it doesn’t really matter what chords I play… as it’s only a Northern Song.” Lennon would say with some bitterness that the bald and bespectacled man who proposed the deal, Dick James, had “carved Brian [Epstein] up.”

In fact, by the standards of the day, Dick James made the Beatles—a band with one hit record and zero leverage in the industry—a pretty good deal.

Keep in mind that when Chuck Berry recorded his first 45 for Chess Records in the mid-’50s, the Chess brothers made him share songwriting credit—right on the label—with a prominent disk jockey, as well as with the company’s landlord. The publishing rights to Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” were purchased by his label bosses for all of 50 dollars. This kind of wholesale theft was commonplace; in the early rock era, the ethics of the average music publisher could make a mob capo blanch.

But Epstein knew that the right music publisher could make a difference. Publishers were, in effect, hustlers. They promoted new songs by their artists, and even more important in the pre-Beatles era, when most artists didn’t write their own songs, they hawked the songs to other artists.

Love Me Do” had been published by EMI’s in-house publishing arm, Ardmore & Beechwood, which did nothing to promote it. As a result, it stalled at No. 17 on the charts, even though Epstein allegedly ordered 10,000 copies, nearly two-thirds of the record’s initial sales, as his own effort at “promotion.” When the much more promising “Please Please Me” was on the verge of release, Epstein set out to find his hustler.

This is where the London music scene’s old boys’ network came into play. James had been a modestly successful dance-hall singer, produced by none other than a young George Martin. His 1956 recording of “Robin Hood,” the theme to a British TV series, hit No. 14 on the charts—the biggest success either had ever had. This won James a regular spot on Radio Luxembourg, produced by a man named Philip Jones. (This connection would soon prove fateful, as I’ll explain below.) When James’s musical career sputtered to a halt, he got into music publishing. It was James who brought Martin and the Beatles “How Do You Do It,” which the Beatles hated but recorded anyway.

At this point, Epstein wanted to approach Hill & Range, the U.S. publisher that handled Elvis Presley’s catalog, about taking over from Ardmore & Beechwood. Martin, perhaps out of loyalty to his pal James, urged Epstein to go with a smaller, “hungrier” company. He in fact gave three names to Epstein, but added a special plug for James. When one of the other contenders was 20 minutes late for his appointment with Epstein, the Fabs’ manager simply left and showed up at James’ office early. James ushered him right in. Epstein played him an acetate of “Please Please Me” and told him that if he could help turn it into a hit, he could handle their publishing.  

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966
The Beatles in studio with George Martin in 1966.

Wikimedia Commons

In the eyes of some contemporaries, James may have literally been hungry at this point; Epstein was reportedly alarmed by the shabbiness of his office. But right in front of Epstein, James called his former producer Philip Jones, who had fortuitously taken over one of Britain’s most important pop TV shows, Thank Your Lucky Stars. He played “Please Please Me” into the phone, got the Beatles their first national TV appearance, and—seeming much better connected than he was—sealed the deal that made him wealthy beyond comprehension within 18 months.

After “Please Please Me” became a hit, it was James who suggested the Beatles form their own publishing company. While this wasn’t completely without precedent—Irving Berlin had owned his own songs—it was hardly the norm. The idea was, by making Lennon, McCartney, and Epstein partners in the venture with James, they could have some control over their creative rights, in addition to receiving royalties. George Martin saw it as “a very clever deal” because its generosity ensured the Beatles would sign with James for the long haul—ten years, initially.

The deal was signed in Epstein’s Liverpool home; it’s believed that Lennon and McCartney didn’t even read the contract. British record sales would be split nearly 50-50—about the same as the Ardmore deal—with James taking a 10 percent administration charge from the artists’ share. For overseas sales, James’ administration charge was 50 percent—also standard for the time, though it meant the songwriting Beatles and Epstein would share just 25 percent of, say, a huge American hit. Overall, James and his business partner managed to retain 51 percent of the company—a majority stake that caused a lot of headaches for the Beatles down the road.

Did the Beatles get screwed by the very creation of Northern Songs? It’s hard to see how. They’d released just two 45s—one of them barely a hit—and yet they formed their own company, a move that did give them some say in their creative lives, and would soon be imitated a thousand-fold. James not only helped to launch “Please Please Me” with a prime TV spot, he worked to see that their songs were covered by everyone from Herb Alpert to Petula Clark to Ella Fitzgerald—which was the business Lennon and McCartney hoped to be in once their performing careers fizzled out. After all, in 1963, no one could have predicted the value or longevity of the Beatles’ canon. Lennon would tell Gloria Steinem in 1964, “I know this thing can’t last. I’m saving the money.” And as late as 1965, McCartney would say, “We’ve got people we trust—our manager, our recording manager, our publisher, and our accountant—they’re all trustworthy people, I think. So we leave it to them and I don’t have to worry.”

Knowing what we all know today, could the Beatles have kept 75 percent of their publishing, which is standard today? Could they have owned and managed their publishing outright, like Berlin, and hired cheap flaks to do the hustling? Of course they could have. But back in February 1963, not even the Beatles knew that they’d become the Beatles.

Eli Attie is screenwriter and TV producer whose writing credits include The West Wing and House, MD.  He is also a former political operative; he worked as a special assistant to then-President Bill Clinton and as Vice President Al Gore’s chief White House and campaign speechwriter. He has written about popular music for the Washington Post, Guitar World, and other publications.

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