VOICE OF A GENERATION: BEATLE, ARTIST, SONGWRITER, COPYRIGHT OWNER
In the mid-1980s, Michael Jackson and I were hanging out, and he asked me for career advice. I said, “Okay, three things: First of all, get yourself a really good manager. You’re really hot now, there’s going to be a lot of money coming in, and you really need someone to help you manage it. Second, think about getting into videos.” (Shortly after that, he did “Thriller,” so I thought that was cool, he took my advice.) Then I said, “And finally, be careful about your songs—own your work—and get into song publishing.” And he said, “Oh, I’m going to get yours!” I kind of laughed; I didn’t think he was serious. But he was.
It all goes back to the very beginning of the Beatles, when we signed the music publishing contract. We didn’t care what it was: We were just like any other writers; we wanted to get published. It turned out to be basically a slave contract; no matter how successful we made the company, we didn’t get a raise. After John died, I talked to Sir Lew Grade, who owned Northern Songs, the company that held our publishing rights. I said, “Lew, if you’re ever going to sell Northern Songs, you’ve got to come to me first.” He said, “I’m never going to sell.” And I said, “Fair enough. But if you do, come to me first.” He later came to me and said, “Yeah, I am selling it—for $20 million.” I said, “Okay, I think that’s a fair valuation.”
But I didn’t want to be the guy who bought John out. So I went to John’s people, and I said, “We’ve got this opportunity to buy Northern Songs, finally. It’s $20 million. And so that’s $10 million from me, $10 million from you. And we should do this, what do you think?” The response: “Oh, no, we can get it for $4 million.” I said, “I’m not sure about that.” It ended up falling through, and Michael later ended up buying it off this Australian guy Robert Holmes à Court for $47.5 million. I wasn’t willing to pay that much for my own songs. It’s difficult, when you’ve written them for nothing, to pay $50 million to get them back.
It’s so important to have good people around you. That’s why I’m anywhere near this list. My lawyers, John and Lee Eastman, are really smart, both great guys, and I listen to them. In recent years, they’ve helped me recover my copyrights. (There’s a U.S. law that allows me to get them back.) If I’m wheeling and dealing, life becomes very difficult for me. I’ve got to reserve a portion of my brain for writing songs.