The Beatles are undoubtedly one of the most successful rock bands in history. And while the members and their estates don’t really need more money, it’s interesting to wonder, do The Beatles still get royalties?
The Beatles still got royalties after Michael Jackson purchased their catalog in 1985, but only performance royalties and not songwriting royalties. And the members and their estates still get performance royalties today.
It’s hard to believe it’s been over 35 years since Michael Jackson famously bought the Beatles catalog when he purchased ATV Music. With that single investment, he acquired songs not only by the Beatles but by the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Presley.
It turned out to be a great investment for MJ, who was able to sell half of ATV Music to Sony in the 90s for an incredible $100 million more or less. Not bad, MJ. Not bad.
This obviously left Sir Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr out of the equation when it came to benefiting as much as they could from the commercialization of their music. It also led the whole world to ask,
The business of royalties is complicated.
But just how big is that cut of the royalties that the Beatles get? Whatever happened to the Beatles catalog after Michael Jackson passed away? And how is that royalty money divided among the surviving Beatles?
Here’s what I learned…
Who owns the Beatles catalog now?
After Michael Jackson died, his 50% share of the Beatles catalog was managed by his estate until 2016. At that point, Sony bought out his interest and became the sole owner but cut deals directly with Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono.
In 2009, Sony cut a deal with Yoko Ono to retain ownership of John Lennon’s authorship rights until 2050.
In 2017, Paul McCartney entered into negotiations with Sony to “reclaim” his authorship rights. The thing is, there is a little loophole in US copyright law that allows the authors of songs (or any other copyrighted work, for that matter) that were published before 1978 to regain control of their works after 56 years.
This means that starting in 2018, Paul McCartney was able to start reclaiming his ownership over the songs he wrote while with the Beatles in 1962.
Every year until 2026, in theory, McCartney would have been able to reclaim more and more songs until regaining control over the whole collection of the Beatles songs he authored.
Seeing the lawsuit on the horizon, Sony wisely worked with McCartney to reach a deal that continues to be strictly confidential to this day.
So – who owns the Beatles catalog now?
It’s not exactly clear. Sony still controls John Lennon’s share, and it can only be speculated that Paul McCartney was able to successfully reclaim his part of the deal.
And I haven’t even mentioned Ringo or George.
US labels often edit albums from UK/EU bands according to the home audience’s taste (if the contract allows). Mechanical royalties are also calculated differently meaning there’s no point having more than 10 tracks on US albums. Check out what happened to The Beatles on Capitol! pic.twitter.com/cQbgXZ8l32
— Dr. Jon Stewart (@jonsleeper1) May 13, 2020
Did the Beatles get paid equally?
The Beatles got paid equally for concert appearances, merchandising deals, and even record sales. They had a contract with their manager Brian Epstein where he got a 25% cut, and the four of them evenly divided the other 75%.
But the thing is, there are other kinds of royalties beyond concert revenue or merchandising deals.
I’m mostly talking about songwriting royalties. Having authored a song, the composer is entitled to an additional payment.
Everybody knows that the main songwriters in the Beatles were John Lennon and Paul McCartney. George Harrison contributed some really amazing songs too, and Ringo Starr even got a couple of hits in their catalog.
So, in theory, yes. The Beatles did get paid equally.
But in reality, John and Paul always got those additional songwriting royalties. That really tipped the earning scales in their favor since they wrote and sang the majority of the songs
#YokoOno signed over the royalties of #JohnLennon‘s song #Imagine, in perpetuity, to #AmnestyInternational, a worldwide organization devoted to political prisoners. pic.twitter.com/NC9A9sUkTK
— Andres Quiroga (@aresluoga) October 9, 2020
Who gets John Lennon’s royalties?
Yoko Ono controls Lennon’s estate and his royalties. Eventually, those royalties will pass to her and Lennon’s son Sean. Lennon’s first son Julian engaged in a lengthy legal battle with Ono and was paid a lump sum of $20 million British pounds to relinquish any claims over his father’s royalties.
When John Lennon was murdered in 1980, one would assume that all of his assets and royalties were passed down to his heirs; Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, and Julian Lennon.
But things weren’t so cut and dry.
Everything went to Yoko Ono, who controlled the estate with an iron fist. After a lengthy legal battle to claim his inheritance, Julian Lennon was essentially offered a 20 million pound deal to drop the case. As I understand it, he got cash, basically, and no interest in any future royalty payments.
That leaves Yoko Ono, who will eventually leave her interest to her son Sean when she passes away.
As I mentioned, she cut some kind of deal with Sony, so it’s unclear what kind of songwriting royalties she receives, but she definitely gets John Lennon’s share of all the other royalty payments that are distributed to the Beatles.
The Beatles still make £67,000-a-day from a company that shut 50 years ago (not including royalties!) https://t.co/jrBgk2iYs8 pic.twitter.com/te4ZJUKYSn
— Mirror Celeb (@MirrorCeleb) October 15, 2017
How much are the Beatles’ royalties worth?
The Beatles’ royalties, including both songwriting and performance royalties, are worth an estimated 1.5 billion dollars.
But this question is surprisingly difficult to answer.
First off, I’ll repeat: there are different kinds of royalties. We’ve talked about songwriting royalties, concert, and merchandising royalties – It’s a complicated system.
The fact that the Beatles catalog is held by Sony and Paul McCartney under fairly secretive deals makes it hard to get exact statistics on how much money is made on an annual basis.
I did my research, though, and the answer I found is this: The Beatles still earn a LOT of money in royalties.
Here are some interesting numbers I found:
- In 2016, when Sony bought out the Jackson Estate’s 50% interest in the Beatles catalog, they paid $750 million. That means that just 5 years ago, the catalog was worth a total of $1.5 billion.
- In 2019, Apple Records Limited reported that the Beatles earned an impressive £50,244,899 in royalties from numerous licensing agreements. This money was distributed between Paul, Ringo, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison.
- In 2012 producers of the hit show ‘Mad Men’ paid $250,000 to use the song ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – a licensing agreement that required the approval of Paul, Ringo, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison.
- The video game The Beatles: Rock Band earned at least 40 million dollars in royalties as of 2009.
Hear George Harrison’s “Cosmic Empire,” a previously unreleased 1970 solo-acoustic song from the ‘All Things Must Pass’ sessions https://t.co/YzontyUO9F pic.twitter.com/VPv1o7tXiM
— Stereogum (@stereogum) July 9, 2021
Who gets George Harrison’s royalties?
When we look at George Harrison’s songwriting ownership, anything written before 1968 got lumped into the Beatles catalog that Sony now mostly owns. His company Harrisongs, owned by his widow, controls all remaining George Harrison royalties.
George Harrison was always the quiet Beatle and the third wheel when it came to songwriting credits.
He penned only 22 of the 188 original Beatles songs. His talent was enormous though, and after the Beatles broke up, he went on to have an impressive solo career.
When he passed away in 2001, his estate was valued at over 90 million British pounds. Most of his wealth went to his wife Olivia and their son. But who inherited his Beatles-related royalties?
Before the Beatles broke up, he created his own publishing company called Harrisongs, of which he came to have 100% ownership. Because of this, he never lost the rights to all of his Beatles songs, unlike Lennon and McCartney.
Harrisongs is now owned by his widow.
It’s crazy that 50 years after the Beatles broke up, each one of them (or their heirs) is still earning an impressive annual income from their relatively brief careers as Beatles.
I think the fact that a band that’s been broken up for half a century continues to be a top-selling act is a testament to the revolutionary nature of their music.
The Beatles were a first. Their music literally changed the world. The Beatles still get royalties because the Beatles are still awesome. But the Stones are still going, which of course begs the question are The Stones now worth more money than the Beatles.
Click that link to see just how much the Stones have made in their career and how they split their money.
Photos that require attribution:
The Beatles Statue by George M. Groutas and the Beatles by Kaarina Dillabough are licensed under CC2.0 and were cropped, edited, merged, and had a text overlay added.