Beatles for sale: rappers, brands turn to Fab Four

NEW YORK/LONDON (Billboard) - It’s perfectly legal, but it will still seem to some listeners like the sound of someone making off with England’s crown jewels.

A billboard commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Beatles in Tokyo, in a 2006 photo. Forty years and more after the Beatles changed rock music forever, their songs have truly arrived in the 21st century as part of the rap/hip-hop art form -- with the express permission of their publishers. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

On rap collective Wu-Tang Clan’s new single “The Heart Gently Weeps,” a Santana-style rock guitar opening gives way to an almost celestial chorus of something very familiar. There, and throughout the track, is the unmistakable melody of George Harrison’s timeless contribution to the Beatles’ “White Album” from 1968: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Now, the track is accompanied by Wu-Tang’s trademark, uncompromising language, rapping out a gritty street story, even as Harrison’s son Dhani plays along.

Meanwhile on the just-finished “Judas,” Ja Rule is introducing the rap community to another incongruous musical motif. This is no unthinking appropriation of a classic act’s creativity, as has sometimes been the case in rap. As he works at folding the original flavor into the hook of this midtempo treatise on “love, hate, jealousy and betrayal,” he’s doing so with the help of “Eleanor Rigby.”

Forty years and more after the Beatles changed rock music forever, their songs have truly arrived in the 21st century as part of the rap/hip-hop art form -- with the express permission of their publishers. Although there are hundreds of covers of “Yesterday,” “Something” and the rest, this approach of “interpolation” -- essentially rerecording a portion of a song -- of the Beatles’ compositions represents new access to the most famous catalogue in the world. These developments may ultimately signal a fresh attitude toward Beatles masters appearing in everything from commercials to movies.


But don’t expect to hear samples of the Beatles’ original recordings, which remain strictly under lock and key, for now at least. Instead Sony/ATV, which owns all but a handful of the Lennon/McCartney copyrights, is allowing a select few to license some celebrated compositions and reference them in their own, newly recorded material.

The first lucky participants in these interpolations are acts from the arena of hip-hop and rap, with Ja Rule joining Common -- who used “She’s Leaving Home” on “Forever Begins” from his current album “Finding Forever” -- and Jay-Z, who commandeered “I Will” on “Encore” from his 2003 “The Black Album” and “Numb/Encore” on his 2004 collaboration “Collision Curse” with Linkin Park. Meanwhile, Wu-Tang licensed rights from Harrisongs, George Harrison’s publisher, for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Ja Rule’s “Eleanor Rigby”-appropriating “Judas” will appear on his next album, “The Mirror,” due in the first quarter, while the Wu’s Harrison-referencing “The Heart Gently Weeps” is the first single from its new album “8 Diagrams,” which came out December 11. The song features a re-created backing track plus electric guitar by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante as well as acoustic contributions from Dhani Harrison.

Sony/ATV chief executive Martin Bandier says he’s very much in favor of licensing Beatles songs for things that haven’t been licensed in the past -- under certain circumstances. Jay-Z, Common and Ja Rule received Sony/ATV’s blessing because “they’re prominent and well-regarded,” Bandier says, but the way the song is used must also be acceptable.

“If Jay-Z interpolates a Beatles song and his album sells 2 million units, it doesn’t change the economic structure” of the license deal, Bandier says. “It’s wonderful to have that income, but we’re more concerned about the possible repercussions of a bad message and something that we might not find tasteful.”

The ever-sensitive nature of the Beatles’ copyrights is reflected by the reluctance of several key players to participate in this story. Paul McCartney, Dhani Harrison, Jeff Jones (who became Apple Corps’ new CEO in April) and EMI Music U.K. and Ireland chairman/CEO Tony Wadsworth were either “unavailable” or declined to comment.

In fact, Sony/ATV is not contractually required to obtain approval by John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, or by McCartney before it can license the compositions, but Bandier says he believes there is a “moral obligation” to speak with them about licensing the songs. In the internecine history of the Beatles’ publishing, Lennon and McCartney effectively lost control of the group’s song rights even while the group was still a recording entity, in 1969.

That was when Northern Songs, the company established six years earlier solely to publish their joint compositions by English publisher Dick James and Beatles manager Brian Epstein, was sold to British media tycoon Lew Grade’s ATV Music. Ownership of ATV subsequently passed to Australian entrepreneur Robert Holmes a Court and then, in 1985, to Michael Jackson.

In 1995, Sony came into the picture, forming a joint venture with trusts formed by Jackson, creating a new entity: Sony/ATV Music Publishing. That publishing company includes the Northern Songs catalogue that contains 259 copyrights by Lennon and McCartney. These songs essentially represent everything recorded under the Beatles name by Lennon and McCartney, except for five songs: their first two U.K. singles, “Love Me Do”/”P.S. I Love You” and “Please Please Me”/”Ask Me Why,” and “Penny Lane,” “gifted” by Jackson to Holmes a Court under a specific provision of Jackson’s purchase of the ATV catalogue.


When it comes to the Beatles’ original studio recordings, controlled by EMI-Capitol Records, permission is another matter. After Nike used the Beatles’ original of “Revolution” in 1987 for its “Revolution in Motion” TV commercial campaign (in a licensing deal worth $250,000 to the label, according to Nike at the time), Apple Corps and Apple Records sued Nike, its advertising agency and EMI-Capitol for $15 million.

Paul Russell, former chairman of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, recalls, “Once Sony/ATV was formed, any requests for those songs came to Sony/ATV and not to Michael Jackson.

“(When) those requests came in, serious requests for serious money, for products that we knew were noncontentious, they would come to me and we would form a view, and then we’d go to Michael, even though he didn’t have the right to approve it, and say, ‘We’ve received this request, we think it’s the right price and an OK use, what do you think?’ If somebody had come back to us, either Michael or the Apple people, and said, ‘We really don’t want you to do this,’ we probably wouldn’t have done it.”

According to a 1988 New York Times report, Apple’s attorney Leonard Marks said that “Ono and the (then) three surviving Beatles each own 25% of Apple and that the company required ‘unanimity among the four Beatles’ interests in order to act.’”

In 1989, it was announced that the dispute had been resolved, in a formal statement that all outstanding lawsuits between the Beatles/Apple and EMI-Capitol-- some of them dating back 20 years -- had been settled. The parties agreed that no further Beatles recordings would be licensed for commercial use, although the Nike commercial can now be seen on YouTube.

Brian Southall, author of “Northern Songs: The True Story of the Beatles’ Publishing Empire,” published in August in the United States by Omnibus Press, says, “There aren’t a lot of Lennon/McCartney songs that appear in adverts since the Nike ad. And you’ll never, ever find the Beatles singing as a background to a TV commercial. You could take a song and get it recorded by ‘A. N. Other.’ But Michael (Jackson)’s attitude in the early days was, ‘These are the greatest songs ever recorded, and they ain’t gonna end up on a cornflakes ad.’”

Nevertheless, Ono was quoted by Time magazine at the time as saying the “Revolution” commercial was “making John’s music accessible to a new generation.” That’s exactly how Bandier feels today about actively promoting the Beatles via licensing, and others agree that current commercial realities make the eventual appearance of their original recordings in commercials and films much more likely.

The type of licensing that’s been the most contentious for music purists is for commercials. But a license for a Lennon/McCartney song -- albeit in a cover version -- not only drives revenue for the advertiser, publisher and writers, it can convey a message in the most powerful way.

Rob Kaplan, director of music production for New York-based advertising agency Mcgarrybowen, has been involved with three commercials using Lennon/McCartney songs licensed from Sony/ATV. In 1998, Europe-based Philips Consumer Electronics had very little brand recognition in the United States, Kaplan says. It was using the tag line, “Let’s make things better,” and wanted an anthemic song to unify its products and create a corporate identity.

“They needed something that was a big statement, that could cut across generations, was instantly recognizable but also kind of cool and clever,” Kaplan says. Since the Beatles recording wasn’t available, they had Gomez, then an emerging English band signed to Virgin, record the chorus to “Getting Better,” the last seven seconds of which played at the end of every Philips commercial for about three years.

“We literally got thousands of requests from consumers wanting to know where to buy the song,” Kaplan says.

Mcgarrybowen subsequently licensed Rufus Wainwright’s recording of “Across the Universe” for Canon digital cameras in 2004, as well as a version of “All You Need Is Love” for Chase Bank’s 2006 campaign for rewards programs and customized credit cards with partners including Marriott Hotels, Disney and Borders Books & Music.

“What makes a Beatles song special in advertising is that it’s one of the few things that you know everybody is going to ‘get,’ no matter what,” Kaplan says. “The lyrics are really clear. There are very few things that cut across every demographic imaginable and are still special. The Beatles really are. There’s no comparison.”

Such campaigns are even rarer in the Beatles’ homeland but in 2000, U.K. bank Halifax used a cover of “Help!” in a six-month TV campaign.

“To get something as anthemic as ‘Help!’ was a massive coup,” recalls Tim Male, the company’s head of advertising and media. “We were very surprised when we got it, on the basis that artists like that aren’t interested, or the process or cost of doing it makes it prohibitive.

“The thought of a Beatles track being used in anything is abhorrent to certain people,” Male adds, “and you’ve got to be mindful of that.”


Sony/ATV U.K. says that no applications for British commercial licenses of Beatles songs are in the works, and that the company will take its lead on potential recorded interpolations from the U.S. company. A London representative for Universal Music Publishing Group, which administers “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why,” says, “We’re very selective over any requests and uses of the songs. We would consider commercials if appropriate.”

Bandier notes that the publisher’s decision to grant a license for a Beatles song can be informed by whether it will take the composition to a new audience. Hence Luvs Diapers’ current campaign, which proclaims, “All You Need Is Luvs.”

“The thought and the song were ideal for morning TV, when young mothers are watching,” Bandier says, adding that the commercial was being aired to young parents who may not know the song or have a sense of the theme. “We thought it was very tasteful.”

Since Bandier joined Sony/ATV in March after leaving EMI Music Publishing -- which holds rights in Lennon’s solo compositions -- he has strived to ensure that these classic songs reach the next generation of listeners in a myriad of ways, not just from their parents talking about them.

Seemingly the most successful venture to date is the Las Vegas show “Love,” a joint production of Cirque du Soleil and Apple Corps using the original Beatles recordings, remixed by George Martin and son Giles. Since the show opened in June 2006, it has drawn more than 600,000 spectators and generated music publishing fees nearing $500,000 per month, according to a source close to the show. Worldwide sales of the accompanying “Love” album, released this time last year, stand at 5 million units, according to EMI in London.

Elsewhere, Beatles lyrics are appearing on clothing, after Sony/ATV sealed a deal with Lyric Culture authorizing use of the lyrics on jeans, T-shirts and other items. The publisher is negotiating other merchandising deals.

On the big screen, Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” -- with a plot based on the Beatles songbook and a soundtrack featuring cover versions of Beatles classics -- was released this fall. It grossed about $24 million in the United States and Canada. (The soundtrack album also just received a Grammy Award nomination for best compilation soundtrack album for motion picture, television or other visual media.)

On TV, a special edition of NBC’s “The Singing Bee” was recently dedicated to Lennon and McCartney, while the sixth season’s final episode of “American Idol” was a Lennon, McCartney and the Beatles special, with the contestants all singing Beatles songs.

“In all of the years that ‘American Idol’ has been around, there’s never been a Lennon and McCartney song performed on that show,” Bandier says. “I thought it was preposterous. We were missing an audience of tens of millions of people.

“It’s important that the world knows this music,” Bandier adds. “It just can’t be hidden forever, otherwise you’re going to miss generations of music listeners.”