Sony buys Michael Jackson music rights: Was Jackson a savvy businessman?

Jackson's estate is selling his stake in the Sony/ATV Music Publishing catalog, which is the home of music by acts ranging from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to Taylor Swift.

Cliff Schiappa/AP
Michael Jackson performs in Kansas City, Mo. in 1988.

The estate of Michael Jackson is selling the artist’s stake in the Sony/ATV Music Publishing catalog, which includes the music of such acts as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Taylor Swift. 

After the sale, Sony Corp. will be the only owner of the catalogue. Songs written by Jackson and the master recordings of his songs are not part of the sale and the estate is holding onto the stake it currently holds in EMI Publishing.

Jackson is of course best known as one of the most successful musicians of all time, with his hits including “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” and “Man in the Mirror.” This past December, his 1982 album “Thriller” became the first-ever work to be certified 30 times multi-platinum for sales in America. He is one of the highest-selling recording artists of all time.

But the singer also became a powerful figure behind the scenes when he acquired music that included the Beatles catalog, often called some of the best songs ever created.

Jackson acquired the company ATV, which had the Beatles’ music publishing catalogue, in 1985. 

Author Zack O’Malley Greenburg writes in his book “Michael Jackson, Inc.” that Beatles member Paul McCartney told Jackson how McCartney had been purchasing copyrights, including those for music by Buddy Holly. Jackson’s “entrepreneurial instincts quickly clicked into gear,” Greenburg writes. 

Thomas Barrack, an investor in real estate whose company has a stake in Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, told Greenburg, “Michael said, ‘Wow, I think there’s incredible value [in the Beatles’ songs] over time. Quite honestly, Michael didn’t know if they were worth $12 million or $18 million or $25 million. He just knew and anticipated correctly that over time the intellectual property was going to be worth a lot of money.” 

Industry watchers agree that the Sony/ATV catalogue is one of the most valuable ever. “Sony/ATV … is one of the jewels of the music industry,” New York Times writer Ben Sisario writes, while CNN Money writes Robert Mclean and Charles Riley note, “During his lifetime, Jackson was among the first to recognize the value in controlling the rights to popular works.”

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