There's no beating the Beatles

The Beatles’ “1” is such a chart-topping phenomenon that it seems like a no-brainer: Assemble the U.S. and U.K. No. 1 hits of one of the greatest groups of all time, sit back and count the money.

Between 19 million and 20 million copies of the hit collection have been shipped worldwide in nine weeks — representing the biggest bonanza in the history of repackaged entertainment, specifically music.

If it’s so easy, then why isn’t it done year in and year out?

Diskeries, publishers and managers are scrambling to duplicate the success — but many are doubtful it can happen again.

And in the meantime, the winners are basking in the glory. Here are the victors:

  • Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which owns the copyright to 23 of the 27 songs on “1.”

    “This was a publishing godsend,” says Jody Graham Dunitz, exec VP of Sony/ATV.

    No other album made more money for the publisher last year, because it is a rarity: a multimillion-selling album featuring songs from only one songwriter or songwriting team.

    Based on the standard mechanical royalty rate in the U.S., the team of Paul McCartney and the late John Lennon has pulled in more than $12 million Stateside from “1,” which is split between the composers and Sony/ATV.

  • Michael Jackson, who partnered with Sony in 1995 to create Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Jackson purchased the majority of the Beatles catalog for $47.5 million in 1985 when he bought ATV Publishing.

    The Sony/ATV deal, which became the third-largest music publisher once the Jackson deal was completed, is seeing its biggest payday ever because of “1.”

  • Television. The Beatles would seem to need no sales pitch to remind buyers of their music. Not true. Three weeks before its Nov. 14 release, Capitol launched an all-out offensive on television to reacquaint viewers with the hits of Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr from 1964 to 1970.

    “With the direct-response TV campaign,” says Capitol Records president Lott, “our job was to remind people how great the Beatles’ music is.

    “When we talked about the album with test groups, there was not a lot of excitement. But after people saw a four-minute clip of all the songs with visuals, people were saying, ‘We’ve got to get that.’ “

    The TV ads will continue to run as long as the album continues to sell.

  • The Beatles. Aside from reaping hefty royalties, this album has shifted them from an oldies group into a category all their own.

    “The Beatles are completely historical. Their music is finally free of the gravity that surrounded the Beatles after the 1960s,” says Bill Flanagan, senior VP and editorial director of VH1, which recently dubbed the Fab Four’s “Revolver” the greatest album ever.

  • Capitol Records, Apple Records and distrib EMI.

    Flanagan and Lott credit the Beatles’ clearinghouse Apple Records with a strict attitude toward new releases, which has aided this new commercial and critical awakening. Based on wholesale prices, the disc has easily put $55 million into Capitol-EMI’s U.S. coffers while doing more than $80 million at retail.

    The catalogs of other music icons — Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and especially Elvis Presley — have been worked over ad infinitum, with “Greatest Hits” albums, box sets, and “Essential” albums. All this has made it difficult to crystallize the artists’ importance and for new fans to find an album to start with.

    “We discussed costs and songs with Apple,” Lott admits, “and felt this really was the way the album should be.”

    The collection of 27 Beatles singles has been the top-selling album in the country for six consecutive weeks. It has sold more than 5.9 million copies domestically since its release nine weeks ago and was the sixth bestselling album of 2000 in the U.S.

    Many pundits are predicting the disc has a good shot at eventually becoming the bestselling album of all time, passing the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits 1971-75,” which has shipped 27 million units since its release in February 1976. (The Eagles sold about 1 million copies in 2000).

    By way of comparison, the film business regularly re-releases “classic” films, but had only one real success story last year: Warner Bros.’ “The Exorcist,” which at its widest release was booked in 1,708 U.S. engagements and took in $39.7 million domestically.

    No other re-release made even $2 million in the year; Miramax’s reissue of the Beatles’ first film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” came in fourth, yielding $650,450 in 63 engagements.

Other success stories

In the repackaging of music, 2000 was also pretty good for Cat Stevens and Universal.

U’s newly minted “The Best of Cat Stevens” shared considerable common ground with “1”: a new collection of songs released more than 20 years ago by an artist who no longer records, a heavy promotional push that included television (a much-watched “Behind the Music”) and a full retail price.

The CD sold an inspiring 410,000 units, a clear picture of how well hit albums can do.

Drumming up biz for classics is a hard sell. A marketing exec for a rival label stated, for example, “You can’t do a CD of the Who’s No. 1 hits.”

The exec did suggest, however, that the hits of the Rolling Stones, despite the number of compilations that have been released, have been underexploited. The Stones, though, have had only nine No. 1 pop hits in the U.S. and nine in the U.K., many of which overlap.

Flanagan’s one choice would be Led Zeppelin.

“If they had been disciplined and not gone for several repackages, and then boiled it down to hits, it would have worked. But I suspect it would not have an impact equal to the Beatles.”

Which leaves Capitol wondering what to do next to promulgate Beatlemania.

Nobody would pay much attention, for example, to a collection of “2s.”

Without giving any details, Lott says Capitol wants to formulate a “10-year plan.”

Considering what Capitol/Apple has been willing to release and what it has done with other artists, such as the expanded edition of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” there are a few ideas that would make sense.

For starters, Capitol could issue expanded editions of “Sgt. Pepper” or “Revolver,” create albums dedicated to each of the band members (yes, Ringo did sing enough songs to fill a CD), examine a repackaging of the three “Anthology” sets and widespread bootlegs, and compile their TV appearances.

Recently, EMI has dabbled in solo Beatles’ reissues, releasing a 25th anniversary of McCartney’s “Band on the Run” in 1999 and remastered versions of several Lennon solo discs last year to mark what would have been his 60th birthday.

On Jan. 23, EMI will reissue Harrison’s first post-Beatles album, 1970’s “All Things Must Pass.” The two-CD set will include four previously unreleased tracks from the ’70 sessions and an updated version of “My Sweet Lord.” Harrison has also finished work on a new album and is listening to offers from labels.

Saying it’s too early to discuss any plans, Lott will not talk about the hits-laden catalog of McCartney, who is up for the best alternative album Grammy for his “Liverpool Collage” in February.

And if all of those ideas fail, they can always return to No. 1, because if they count the top slot on charts the world over, there’s still another 78 songs to go.

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