November 23 – George’s First Single Was So Fine, But…

My Lord”… talk about mixed blessings. George Harrison took a giant leap forward and made a massive mistake all at the same time 52 years ago. “My Sweet Lord” was released as a single this day in 1970. It was his first single, from the great triple-album All Things Must Pass, which although his third was his first solo release since the breakup of the Beatles.

Of course, calling it a “solo” is a bit misleading, and probably wouldn’t have been his own description of the record. He had a bevy of friends along working on the record with him. On this song alone, besides George and his singing plus slide guitar, all four members of Badfinger played (three on guitar, one on drums), as did Eric Clapton and Peter Frampton on guitars, Gary Wright and Billy Preston both played keyboards. And that’s only a partial list. It was co-produced by Phil Spector, and even though he was famous for his “Wall of Sound” production, he found it a bit overwhelming. “It took about 12 hours to overdub the guitar solos,” he said, “perfectionism isn’t the word. He was beyond that.” But as demanding as he was, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, who worked on some other songs on the album, remembers “all the time that I ever knew him, (George) was a wonderful man” and added that various Hare Krishnas would pop into the studio in their white robes at times and hand out cookies.

Of course, the result was well-worth it, a record that seemed worthy of Harrison’s message. He said it was a call to unite religions and have people be thankful no matter how they might worship. “All of us – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jews, Buddhists – can address our gods in the same way, using the same phrase,” he explained. He’d gotten the idea that he wanted to write a spiritual song, and came up with “My Sweet Lord” while in Denmark with Clapton and Preston the year before. He hadn’t even intended to record it, initially, so he let Billy Preston release a version before All Things Must Pass came out. In the end he got a spiritual tune with a pop feel… too much of a pop feel, as it turned out.

Now when his album was ready for release, he wanted no singles. He figured people should experience it all as one work, and perhaps didn’t even want to show favoritism to one of his songs over another. Of course Apple Records saw it differently and needed something to get on radio for Christmas time to spur on sales. Harrison relented somewhat, and “My Sweet Lord” was released in North America, with “Isn’t It a Pity?” on the other side. Although the former was the real hit, he considered it a two-sided single, just as so many of the Beatles 7” records had been. He got his way initially in Britain, with the company waiting until 1971 to release the single there.

Reaction was great. Billboard declared it “a powerhouse two-sided winner.” The UK’s NME said it “establishes George as a talent equivalent to either Lennon or McCartney” , a bit of a radical idea at that time. Later Elton John would declare it the last great song of its era and say the first time he heard it, “you know when a record starts on the radio and it’s great and you think ‘Oh, What is This?’”… that’s what “My Sweet Lord” was to him. “The only other record I ever felt that way about was ‘Brown Sugar’”.

Many people felt that way too. The song quickly hit #1 in North America, and then the next year became the biggest-selling single of the year in Britain. It topped German charts for 10-straight weeks. It won the Ivor Novello Award for most played record of the year. In time, it sold beyond 10 million copies, making it in all likelihood the biggest-selling single ever by a Beatle after that band’s days were done.

So all was great, right? Well, not quite so fast. Just as the reviews loved the song, several of them, notably Rolling Stone and the NME also pointed out that it bore more than a passing similarity in tune to the 1963 Chiffons hit, “He’s So Fine.” One wonders how Spector didn’t notice it and tell George something, or for that mater as Harrison himself would later ask “why didn’t I realize?”

Not surprisingly, he, and Apple Records, were sued. Now the writer of the Chiffons hit, Ronnie Mack, had died young of cancer around the time that song became a hit. So a record publisher, Bright Tunes filed suit against Harrison only weeks after “My Sweet Lord” hit the charts. What followed was…messy to say the least. And complicated and lengthy. It involved different courts and ex-Beatles manager Allen Klein at first representing Harrison, then being replaced… an entire book could be written about the proceedings, which dragged on into 1976. George actually thought if he used any tune for a base, it was the old hymn “Oh Happy Day.”

In the end, Harrison lost. The judge, Richard Owen, himself a composer, said “did he deliberately use the music of ‘He’s So Fine’? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that ‘My Sweet Lord’ is the very same song as ‘He’s So Fine’ with different words…this is under the law an infringement of copyright.” Harrison had to pay approximately $1.6 million, which was 3/4 of the North American royalties from the single and some of the album’s sales too. However, the case dragged on more and after appeals, that amount was reduced to approximately $587 000, with other courts finding Judge Owen’s finding overly harsh and also finding that Klein was negligent in his defense of Harrison.

The whole thing left the ex-Beatle understandably upset and “paranoid”. He said “99% of the popular music that is heard is reminiscent of something or other”. He had trouble writing any material for several years as a result. And one would think he worked as a cautionary tale for other artists in the future. Or at least those not called Radiohead or Vanilla Ice.

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November 19 – Big Labels Got Bigger Still 35 Years Back

If you’re a record collector, you probably know many different labels by sight. Maybe admire the artwork; there were some cool designs and logos. The colorful sunset design and palm tree on the Island Records’ vinyl. The cool-looking guy in the hat and the shades on IRS ones. The bright Granny Smith-green apple on…yep, Apple.  And you probably think, “man, there are so many record companies!”. Well, yes and no. You might notice that we often refer to record “labels” here instead of companies. And there are a lot of record labels, to be sure. But record companies… well, these days there are really only three that matter, sadly enough. The industry is now down to basically the Big Three. The process has been happening for a number of decades, and it took a big step in that direction in 1987.

That was when, after lengthy negotiations, Sony bought out CBS Records for some $2 billion (equivalent to at least $4b now). CBS of course consisted primarily of Columbia Records but also included Epic Records and several other smaller imprints and at the time was home to stadium-filling acts like Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson and Journey. It accelerated the ongoing trend that’s seen more and more of the music business controlled by a small and decreasing number of mega-corporations. The process of merging and reducing competition in the music market has continued unabated since. Sony merged with BMG in 2004, and is now the second-largest “record” company in the world behind Universal. Universal itself bought out the “music” division of EMI in 2012 for $1.9 billion, although curiously EMI’s music publishing branch was sold to Sony at the same time for about $2 billion more. That branch was not insignifcant when you consider that EMI held the copyright on some 750 000 songs including those of the Beatles, Pink Floyd and literally thousands more artists.

Today the “big three” – Universal, Sony BMG and Warner – make up about 80% of music sales in the U.S. They also have tremendous clout with the media (for example, all three companies also have big movie divisions. Which record companies do you think Sony might like Sony Pictures to highlight in their soundtracks?). Now, when you buy a record or CD (assuming you still like hard copy music), you’ll see any number of different labels. For example, let’s say it might still be MCA, Interscope, Geffen, Island, A&M, Motown or EMI. But those are all a part of Universal Music, rather like how Chevy, GMC and Oldsmobile are all GM cars. As the Balance Careers point out, although some of those labels hire their own office staff and sign their own choice of artists, they answer to , and have their budget set by the big head office. The bottom line is if you’re an artist, even an established one, it’s increasingly difficult to play by your own rules or swim against the current if you want any sort of real sponsorship or promotion. Of course, in this day and age, the internet and particularly Youtube and social media make it pretty easy for you to put music out there without dealing with any record company. But the reality is, if you want to be a big star, you probably will have to do so by going through one of just three big office doors.

November 16 – You Can’t Spell British Rock Without 2i’s

A night of significance that would a few years to recognize. That was this day in 1956, when according to On This Day, the BBC broadcast it’s very first pop radio program – The Six Five Special. It would soon spawn their first pop music TV show too, which had the same name.

The BBC, or British Broadcasting System, had been around for over thirty years by then. The first radio programs began in 1922 and in ’27 they were given a royal charter to be the monopoly radio-provider for Britain. But most of their programming it would seem was classical music, perhaps some big bands, and news, speeches from royalty, that sort of thing. The proper “Beeb” had no time for the silliness of youth and their music. But by ’56, Elvis was catching on worldwide, and at home “skiffle”, an odd sort of mix of jazz, folk, rock & roll and other elements was becoming popular. And a great place to find it was on Old Compton Road in London, near Chinatown at the 2I’s Coffee house.

2I’s was one of many cafes in the city, described by Medium.com as “dingy places, reeking of tobacco.” But they were popular, espresso had been discovered by the Brits, and not being licensed for alcohol they could stay open late and serve teens. 2I’s had been run by brothers Freddy and Sammy Irani (hence the “2 I’s”) but by ’56 sold to a couple of ex-wrestlers, Rebel Ray Hunter and Paul Lincoln. They saw the potential to cash in on the skiffle fad and decided to have live music on the stage in the cramped basement, which was supposed to hold upto 80 people (but often had far more.) Among the early names to appear and be “discovered” there were Cliff Richard and Petula Clark. So, the BBC decided it was the place to be for their pop radio show.

Apparently it was a hit for the BBC and the cafe. Soon it was being described as “the place to be” for up and coming musicians and “a magnet for pop singers, agents and music entrepreneurs.” An official historical plaque placed there by the government describes it as “the birthplace of British rock & roll.” Among the people one might have found there were future star producer Mickie Most, waiting tables, and Peter Grant, working as a bouncer before he hooked up with Led Zeppelin and became their manager.

The TV show only ran a year and a half, and it would take until 1964 for BBC TV to get back into pop music, with Top of the Pops. The 2I’s itself began to lose steam in the ’60s and closed in 1970. But they’d both played their role. It brought new rock music to eager British ears and likely kick-started many a musical dream and career. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the same month the radio began airing the Six Five Special, up north in the land one John Lennon started a band, the Quarrymen whom after a few personnel changes became a little better known… as the Beatles.

October 11 – Live From New York, It’s…

Late night weekend TV viewers were in for something different – and probably pretty good – 47 years ago. Saturday Night Live was “live from New York” for the first time this night in 1975.

Considering that it’s still going on, making it by some standards the longest-running show on TV, that’s noteworthy…but might seem irrelevant here. But, far from it. Since the show regularly has had musical guests on, has a house band and is – or was in its glory days – viewed by over 10 million people, week-in, week-out it had the power to suddenly jump start quite a few careers in the music world. Or suddenly put the brakes on a career. Just ask Sinead O’Connnor about that. But for most, being on the show was a huge boost, particularly because many if not most of those loyal watchers were teens or young adults, aka the “music-buying population”. At least in the ’70s through ’90s, when music was being bought in quantity!

The premiere episode was hosted by George Carlin but had both Janis Ian (hot at the time with the song “At Seventeen”) and Billy Preston on it. The following week it really got going, musically with Paul Simon hosting the show and Art Garfunkel being a guest, making for their first reunion in the five years since they broke up as an act. At the time, the program was still fairly unstructured, so musical segments could, on given weeks, make up a fair bit of the show. By the time the calendar turned to 1976, they’d already had on musicians including Abba, Martha Reeves, Gil Scott Heron and Randy Newman. Soon it switched to a more constant format with mostly short skits and the musical guest typically doing two songs, one midway through and one to finish off the program.

Speaking of Newman, he’s performed on SNL six times through the years, tying him with Sting and Coldplay. Beck, his arch-nemesis Kanye West as well as Eminem have been on seven times each, Tom Petty eight, and Paul Simon, 12. But the champion for being on that NBC stage as a guest at 11:30 Saturday is Dave Grohl. He’s been on 14 times! The first two times were with Nirvana (the first time they appeared, Nevermind jumped remarkably in sales the following week) , eight times have been with the Foo Fighters, once with his side-project Them Crooked Vultures, and as well he’s been the drummer in the backing band for Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and Mick Jagger. Not too shabby a list of friends there!

That isn’t the only way the show has impacted the music world however. Some of the cast have spun off their career there and parlayed it into a hit song or two. Steve Martin, not an official cast member but a 27-time guest got together with the (uncredited) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to put out a skit he did on the show, “King Tut” as a record. It went gold. It should be mentioned that Martin’s actually a serious musician, playing banjo with the bluegrass-oriented Steep Canyon Rangers. Eddie Murphy, one of the show’s most-popular stars ever, worked with Rick James not long after leaving SNL and put out the single “Party All the Time”, which went platinum and was one of 1985’s biggest hits. But the champions of the category undoubtedly would be Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, who took their stage on the show and loved of old blues and early-rock music and parlayed it into a career as the Blues Brothers, with two big-selling, critically-acclaimed albums and a career touring that has included various big names in the backing band.

Does SNL still have the make it or break it capability for musicians? Perhaps, but artists now have more options to get heard or known than those 40 or so years ago did. Meanwhile, the show’s ratings are not what they used to be. The New York Post reported they dropped 35% last season alone. In case you’re interested, this week’s musical guest is supposed to be Megan thee Stallion.

September 13 – The King Of Cover Songs

Readers might remember that earlier this summer, we ran a Turntable Talk feature on “cover songs”, with various regulars here weighing in on what makes a good cover song , or when they were utterly redundant. Well, that caught the attention of one of our readers, Randy who is so interested in the concept that he has a site of his own devoted to cover songs – Mostly Music Covers. He wrote in with some thoughts, and as today is the 57th anniversary of the release of one of the most “covered” pop songs of all-time – “Yesterday” by The Beatles – we thought we’d share his thoughts on the subject with you. Randy writes:

If artists didn’t cover songs, then very often you would never have heard the song. I could give you hundreds of examples but here are just a couple easy ones, “Time Is On My Side” by the Rolling Stones and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by The Hollies. On the other hand, we have songs that are covered right out of the gate: ever hear of a tune called “Yesterday”? Released in the U.S. on September 13, 1965, it was recorded over 70 times in 1966 alone and it has maintained its status as the most covered pop song of all time with thousands of versions. So, who were these bandwagon jumping wannabe’s that couldn’t come up with their own iconic ballad? If we put aside the 13 covers from 1965 and focus on 1966, we have names such as Sarah Vaughn, The Supremes, Brenda Lee, Johnny Mathis, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, John Denver, Andy Williams, Patti LaBelle, Perry Como, Count Basie and an up and comer named Freda Payne. These are the instantly recognizable names from just one year alone. There are more icons of the music world such as Tom Jones, Joan Baez, Tammy Wynette, Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight just up to 1968 and the first of 14 covers in 1969 was by Frank Sinatra. Not your typical “follow the leader” kind of people.

As has been discussed by many of us to great extent, is the motivation behind the recording of a cover song. First, we need to understand a bit of the evolution of the term itself. I think we can all agree on the basic definition: the rerecording of an original song. In the early days of recording, a popular song was produced by a record label primarily to literally smother the original and any competing versions. After all, it was all about sales. The label hoped that their performer would outsell the other guy. For the buying public if you had a favorite Orchestra/Big Band then the chances are you could get their version of the popular songs of the day. Despite it being profitable for most labels, in the early days few people could afford a phonograph and buy records, so it was radio or the jukebox at the local jazz club. Regionality played a big part as well, records were not manufactured just anywhere nor were there sophisticated distribution methods. Much easier to make the same song with a different artist on the West Coast than ship the original. Regardless, these cover versions would most often be almost identical to the original, whether instrumental or with vocals, the music, arrangement the whole thing was a copy. Ok – maybe your vocalist was female, and the others were male, but the premise was to mimic. This was the way of the cover song for many years.

I shan’t bore you with the whole life cycle of the cover song and indeed every song has its story. Some are like the cicada and only come out every 17 years or so, some are of the more perennial variety. Let’s get back to “Yesterday” as we can surmise many motivations. First, if I am a record label, competing or otherwise I want a piece of the sales action on a massively popular song. If I am a recording artist, I want to keep both my label and my fans happy and loyal to me. Sometimes my contract made me do it. Oh, sure many covers were done as a tribute, some were heartfelt and full of emotion. Some had a different take on the song but most I have to say stick close to the original. This was a pivotal point in cover song history as there was no other song that captured the attention and the vast number of covers like “Yesterday” and there has not been another song to rival it since. This is of course excluding Christmas songs, and a few select ‘standards’ such as the showtune “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess or the ditty known as “Greensleeves” circa 1580.

Seasonal songs are a bit easier to explain, and no we don’t need another rendition of “Silent Night”, but new ones will appear on your favorite artists Christmas album and orchestras and choirs issue recordings annually. As to the non-traditional or ‘pop’ song, why do we have anywhere from a dozen to hundreds and even thousands of versions? I am all for an artist putting their own ‘spin’ on a song, often we see this when the song switches genre such as Johnny Cash and “Hurt” or Disturbed with “The Sound of Silence”. One of the greatest songs ever, and not just my opinion is a cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” by Aretha Franklin who, as we all know turned the song on its head to create a new work of art. But a different voice to a song is sometimes all it takes. An amazing and beautiful song is sometimes just that, and we enjoy hearing it again and again by the same or different performers.

Often, it’s a cover of a legendary artist like Bob Dylan who has been out-charted on his original songs more than any other performer. Case in point “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Guns n’ Roses or “Quinn the Eskimo” by Manfred Mann (“Mighty Quinn”) to name just a few. For over 50 years Billboard’s most successful single was Chubby Checkers “The Twist” which was a deliberate note for note cover of Hank Ballard’s original. Or it may be something more obscure such as Tony Bennett’s signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. First performed by Claramae Turner in 1954 and for several years live on stage but never put to vinyl, so the first record release was by Ceil Clayton in 1960 and she did not chart. By happenstance it made its way to Bennett, then it was casually released as a “B” side in 1962. DJ’s however (as they often do) had minds of their own and ignored the “A” side and went straight to San Francisco and Bennett had a Gold Record, a Grammy Award for Record of the Year and another for Best Male Solo Performance. Now that’s some motivation to cover a song! Many a Grammy has been won with a cover song.

My major source of reference is Secondhandsongs.com, which is an incredible and reliable database containing over one million cover songs. After obsessing over covers for an long time, I have been writing about them for over four years. I am thrilled to be included in Dave’s post today. Thanks, and happy listening.

August 28 – Meissner Helps Other Artists Get Their ‘One Chance’

Happy 66th birthday to someone very few outside of Canada have heard of. Then again, comparatively few in Canada may recognize Stan Meissner‘s name, but maybe they should. Especially if they happen to be musicians themselves. Meissner is a singer, songwriter, musician and recently, advocate for fellow Canuck musicians.

Meissner grew up in Toronto and though not many details are floating around about his background, he learned to play guitar and keyboards when relatively young. He said not long ago “a 1960 Strat (Stratocaster guitar) has been my constant companion in everything musical I do since I was 13.” He also noted he now has a whole rack of keyboards.

In the early-’80s he signed with A&M Records in Canada to be a staff songwriter, and by 1983 they gave him a chance to record some of his own material; he released two solo albums in the ’80s with them and one more in the ’90s with indie label Duke Street. None of them were blockbusters commercially, but his 1985 album Windows to Light did generate one hit – “One Chance.” The single spent 13 weeks on Canadian charts and actually got to #1 on the adult contemporary ones. It also caught the ear of Eddie Money who soon recorded a cover version of it, which Stan counts as one of his career highs.

He had one more brush with personal stardom, hitting the Canadian top 30 in 1992 with “River of Fire.” But while that was the last of his name presence on the airwaves, his career was doing fine beneath the surface. He wrote a Celine Dion song (“If We Could Start Over”), a couple of songs which were hits for Francophone singer Lara Fabian and ones covered by the likes of Triumph and Benjamin Orr of the Cars. At the same time, he was getting to be in demand by screenwriters, making music for two Friday the 13th movies, and TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Tales From the crypt.

While he hasn’t seemed as busy this century, he’s actually been more important to fellow artists. He’d long been involved in SOCAN and became it’s President in 2012. SOCAN is an organization that deals with licensing music for, collecting and distributing royalties for and advocating legally for 135 000 artists – mainly musicians. He’s also been the Chairman of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame since ’12.

Not a bad career at all for a musician who’s not quite a household name even in his own city. Asked by Rock United why he figured there were so many great musicians in Canada he responded “maybe it’s the clean Canadian air. Or more likely, the Canadian beer. We like our beers in this country!”

To that we say “cheers, Stan” and hope one of the 135 000 you represent buys you a cold pint today!

August 23 – Jon Found An Island Home

It wasn’t a fun time for Jon Bon Jovi seven years back. Longtime guitarist Richie Sambora had just quit the band (Bon Jovi) and then on this day in 2015, Jon announced he was “leaving” (some said “being dumped by”) Mercury Records, the only label Bon Jovi had recorded for in their 32 years. This was only two days after they released the tellingly-titled Burning Bridges record. That album had the title track with lyrics noting “here’s the last song you can sell” and “after 30 years of loyalty, they let you dig your grave.”

Jon said “I am the longest tenured artist on Mercury, but my deal was up and that’s that.” It was a bit perplexing perhaps given that he and the band were not only the longest-tenured act on Mercury, they were the biggest-selling one, outdoing others like John Mellencamp, Rush and even Def Leppard who’d at times been label-mates. A few days ago here, we looked at his Slippery When Wet album, which was the label’s biggest-seller of all-time. But it would seem the company was of a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude; Mercury apparently complained his last top 40 single, was way back in 2007, “Make A Memory”. Nonetheless, his previous album, What about Now? had gotten to #1 on the charts in North America and as recently as 2013 he was the biggest concert draw in the world.

He landed on his feet mind you, the next year Bon Jovi had signed to Island Records and that company was re-releasing remastered versions of the back catalog. He’s put out two albums since. This House is Not For Sale , in 2016, became his sixth #1 in the U.S. and gave him a top 10 hit on adult contemporary charts, perhaps surprisingly, with it’s title track while 2020 (which came out not surprisingly in 2020) made the top 10 in the UK and Australia and scored him another adult contemp. hit with “Do What You Can.”.

August 20 – CBS Figured There Was Gold In Those Stones

The rich got richer! Rolling Stones signed a contract with Columbia/CBS Records this day in 1983 after spending years with Atlantic. The contract was worth at least $28 million (their biographer Murray Nelson says it was more like $50 million.) Whether 28 or 50 mil, it was the biggest contract any musician had signed to that point, topping Kenny Rogers’ previous record $20 million with RCA.

The contract was reportedly for four new albums and allowed them to keep using their own “Rolling Stones” label . Mick, Keith and the lads gave them two before jumping to Virgin Records in the ’90s. Both 1986’s Dirty Work and ’89’s Steel Wheels did fairly well- both were top 5 hits and platinum in the U.S., Steel Wheels hit #1 in Canada. However, it would seem unlikely Columbia got their money back on them alone. The real goldmine for them though was obtaining the rights to all the previous Stones’ work and being able to reissue them. Fans might not have noticed the change; even though signed to CBS the records and CDs had the Stones’ own “big lips” label on them. They were one of the few acts prominent enough to be on Columbia and not have their records sporting the traditional orange markings of that company.

In the ’90s they signed to Virgin Records but their last album, Blue and Lonesome in 2016 was on Polydor Records, distributed by Universal. That one by the way was their 11th #1 album in their homeland and won them a Grammy Award for Best Blues album… but with the state of music sales, is currently their only regular album not to have gone gold or better in the U.S. Will we see another new Stones album? Time will tell. Although there are no apparent immediate plans for one, the band recently wrapped up a European tour marking their 60th anniversary as a group.

August 17 – How We Listened Changed 40 Years Ago Today

The way we listened to music changed in a big way on this day in 1982. Philips began making commercial music Compact Discs ( CDs) for the first time, at a factory in Germany.

As we know, the public loved the allegedly indestructible and small discs. Although the sparse variety of titles and expensive price tags on the equipment meant it didn’t rocket to prominence instantly – the RIAA reported in ’83 about 800 000 CDs were sold in the States, less than 1% of the total recorded music – it didn’t take long. By 1985, Dire Straits had a CD sell a million copies, by 1988 there were 50 commercial CD plants worldwide which was good since the next year, 1989, they began to outsell vinyl LPs. They’ve never lost that crown either. For all the talk of the “vinyl resurgence” they still outsell vinyl records in the U.S…although both formats have dropped off dramatically in the digital, streaming, I-tunes era. After peaking with American sales of 943 million in 1999 (according to RIAA again) they’ve plummeted to just 47 million last year. However, surprisingly that was an increase from 2020, and represented 14% of all music sales. With Spotify and other streaming services, total music sales, digital or analog, hit the lowest level since they began being tracked five decades back.  From 1993 through 2007, CD sales were above half a billion per year.

The first CD by the way, was a classical work of Chopin by Claude Arrau who was invited to start the machinery at the plant; later that day some Abba The Visitors CDs were rolling off the assembly line. Here, Billy Joel’s 52nd Street was the very first CD made available for sale.

August 10 – Paul Wasn’t Thriller-ed By Michael

August 10th was a big day on Michael Jackson‘s calendar. And on the flipside, a big but despised one on Paul McCartney’s.

For Jackson, the day had twofold stature. On the date in 1979, he instantly resurrected what was at that point a solo career that had been in freefall, with the release of his Off The Wall album. It would go on to sell over 20 million copies on the strength of singles like “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” and the title track. It quickly launched his adult career as “the King of Pop.” That made him not only a household name, but a lot of money as well. But on this day in 1985, he did what would end up making him a great deal more money – something Billboard called “the shrewdest move of his 40-plus year career.” A move that would make him hundreds of millions of dollars during his lifetime…but cost him one friend. Paul McCartney. Because on this day 37 years back, Jackson bought ATV Music Publishing…which the media basically paraphrased as “the Beatles songs.”

ATV stood for Associated Television, a company started in 1957 by British media mogul Lew Grade. It was primarily, despite the name, a music publishing company. In 1969, the Beatles entered the story, selling their Northern Songs publishing company (which held the rights to all the Lennon/McCartney songs) to ATV for tax reasons.

As it happened, McCartney and Jackson became friends and worked together on a couple of singles. During the time they were making “Say Say Say”, Paul talked of business to Michael…who paid too close attention. McCartney pointed out just how profitable publishing was in the music world, and how he’d bought the publishing rights to Buddy Holly’s catalog. This all apparently surprised Jackson, but was absolutely correct.

Music publishing is an industry as old as recorded music itself, if not older. Originally, it basically did what the name suggests – published music. Back in the pre-radio, pre-gramophone days, the only way to get ahold of popular music was to buy the sheet music and play it yourself, or have someone play it for you. Sheet music was a huge seller at the turn of the last century, and putting out those printed pages made money.

That’s still a part of the biz, but a much smaller one. But, music “publishing” is a huger industry. According to Robert Allen at Universal Music, the companies make their money four ways, one of which is the sheet music, or “print income.” Much more important are the “mechanical royalties,” “synchronization incomes” and “performance income.”

The mechanical royalties are monies paid every time a copy of the music is sold. A specific amount is given to the songwriter for every song on a CD, LP, DVD, sold or downloaded through something like I-tunes. It’s said that the typical rate is about 9 cents per song for a physical hard copy, although there is some variation. Sell a million copies of an album with ten songs you wrote on it, and that’s $900 000 just in writing money, for example.

Performance royalties are another huge source of income. Every time a song gets played on radio, TV as a video, or in nightclubs or other public gatherings, money gets paid to the songwriter. Organizations like BMI and ASCAP keep track of the number of plays, collect the money and distribute it back.

Synchronization royalties are the payments for songs used in movies or TV shows… for example, Stranger Things using Kate Bush’s “Running up that Hill.” These royalties can get into the hundreds of thousands of dollars when big movies or national commercials are involved.

Now, the odd thing is that even though the songwriter holds the copyright, they split the money (generally 50-50) with the publisher. Which seems a bit of a rip-off for the artist, but the publisher does do a fair bit of work for them. Especially when it comes to the synchronization; usually it’s the publisher who agrees to license out a song for movies or TV, sets the fees and does the paperwork. The savvier artists usually try to own their own publishing company though, so they can keep all the income, but few actually do so.

Which leads us back to ATV and Michael. In 1985, Jackson was on top of the world, Thriller was just starting to drop off charts over two years after it had come out, and it alone had made him $50 million or more by then, not counting all his tours and increased earnings from back catalog sales which had picked up. Around that time, ATV’s owners decided to sell. Paul McCartney by now regretted not having control over the Beatles catalog and tried to buy the company. Jackson got wind of it and swooped in at the last minute and outbid the ex-Beatle, buying it for approximately $47 million.

I think it’s dodgy to do something like that,” Paul said of it. “To be someone’s friend, then buy the rug they’re standing on.” When he tried to complain to Jackson about it, the latter reportedly said “oh Paul! That’s just business.” Business got more nasty due to the synchronization royalties. Up until then, Beatles songs hadn’t been leased out for commercials, but under Jackson’s guidance they were…which infuriated Paul. “It kind of spoils it. Just takes the edge off,” he complained, hearing his songs in ads hawking shoes, computers and more. The pair reportedly never spoke again.

But whether or not this bothered the Gloved One is unclear. As Billboard put it, he was “a profligate spender” so he really made use of the newfound income, which included some 4000 songs and had some of Bruce Springsteen’s, Pat Benatar’s, Bob Dylan’s and many more as well as the Fab Four output. In 1995, he sold half his holdings to Sony, who renamed it Sony ATV, for $100 million. Once in the hands of Sony, the publisher grew profligately, buying up other companies like Acuff-Rose, a major country music publisher, and eventually holding rights to over 60 000 songs (it’s since increased considerably from there.) Once again a bit strapped for money, he sold half his remaining share – or one quarter of the company – in 2006 for $250 million. In 2012, Jackson was no more…but that didn’t stop his estate from taking part in Sony ATV’s acquisition of EMI’s publishing division. In 2016, Sony ended their relationship with the deceased singer by buying out his remaining part of the business for another $750 million.

If there’s any message in the whole story, it might be that young musicians would do just as well getting a good manager with some legal knowledge to keep their own publishing rights as they would in bringing in, say a top-notch session guitarist for their records. And be careful what you “Say Say Say” to your friends.