Paul McCartney's Biggest Regret

“It all goes back to the very beginning of the Beatles, when we signed the music publishing contract,” he told me.

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Of all the projects I worked on in my decade-plus at Forbes, one of my favorites was the 2017 Centennial issue. This  anniversary package had an outrageously ambitious goal: to interview the 100 greatest living business minds and extract a worthy lesson from each, using an “as-told-to” format. We had only a couple months to pull it off—the magazine equivalent of Nic Cage’s Gone In 60 Seconds heist of 50 cars in a couple days—so we went about divvying up the targets by industry.

I had to chase down a handful of music luminaries, and eventually landed figures including Bono, Berry Gordy and Puff Daddy, many of whom I’d interviewed before. But my unicorn—my version of Eleanor, the 1969 Shelby Cobra from the aforementioned flick—was Paul McCartney, one of the first names I learned as a child (my parents weren’t particularly big Beatles fans, but everyone used to tell me I looked like “Palma Cartney.”) I went on to chronicle his late-career earnings at Forbes and tried to interview him while writing my second book, Michael Jackson, Inc., but never succeeded until the Centennial issue. The topic he wanted to discuss was ownership.

“It all goes back to the very beginning of the Beatles, when we signed the music publishing contract,” he explained, calling in on his way to or from the recording studio. “No matter how successful we made the company, we didn’t get a raise.”

McCartney was one of numerous mid-century musicians who lost his rights as unscrupulous industry power brokers hungry for cash-flow scooped up copyrights on the cheap. For decades, this was commonplace; virtually no up-and-coming musician would turn down a record deal, or a publishing deal, no matter how exploitative. (When I signed my own first book deal at age 26, I told my agent I’d have done it for free. “Don’t ever say that again!” he exhorted—oops).

What McCartney didn’t know in the early days, of course, was that publishing catalogs would eventually become even more attractive to all sorts of financial operators over the decades—with the Beatles’ copyrights arguably the most desirable of all. 

There are many reasons songs are so valuable. Evergreen hits offer steady returns at a rate that’s generally better than riskier securities such as junk-level bonds; a catalog’s success is usually uncorrelated with the broader market, making for a good hedge; and the advent of streaming has supercharged earnings.

McCartney eventually realized where things were heading, but by then his own catalog was long gone. His team worked to help him invest in a smattering of other artists’ catalogs, including those of the late Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins. In the early 1980s, McCartney tried to impart some wisdom on a young Michael Jackson while spending time together on a video shoot.

“I said … ‘Own your work—and get into song publishing,’” McCartney recalled telling Jackson, not long after the release of Thriller. “And he said, ‘Oh, I’m going to get yours!” I kind of laughed. I didn’t think he was serious. But he was.”

Some wondered why we placed McCartney on the Forbes list of the greatest living business minds. I can only imagine the feedback if we’d included Jackson, had he still been alive. But, as you’ll see throughout this chapter of We Are All Musicians Now, the King of Pop was decades ahead of his time in a great many areas.

The above is a serialized segment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. You just read Chapter 1: The Ownership of Genius (Part 1). Sign up here to make sure you get every fresh installment delivered to your inbox weekly.