Will cash-strapped singer let Beatles go?

With reports mounting that Michael Jackson is spinning toward financial collapse, the music biz is wondering yet again what will become of the gloved one’s most valuable asset — his 50% interest in the Sony/ATV music-publishing catalog, which includes the bulk of the Beatles’ biggest hits.

Jackson shares ownership of the legendary songbook, conservatively said to be worth more than half a billion dollars, with Sony Music.

A high-level exec at another label says Sony has a lien against the catalog owing to the label’s expenses on Jackson’s most recent albums, and most likely would get first dibs in the event of a fire sale. Sony insiders concede they’d be interested in making a bid in the open market should the occasion arise, but the company has repeatedly denied it has any special rights to Jackson’s half of ATV.

They’re not the only ones with their eyes on the Fab Four.

EMI, which controls the Beatles’ master recordings, is said to be interested in the unlikely event that Sony passes (though that U.K. major has been in cost-cutting mode of late), and Paul McCartney himself may be looking to reclaim his work.

Even if Jackson does agree to a sale (or is forced into it by a court), the catalog won’t come cheap. Because of an overall slump in CD sales, publishing assets are seen as a haven for those looking to invest in the music biz — recent deals involving classic country songs and Motown mainstays have fetched well into nine figures. And for a crown jewel like the Beatles catalog, competition would undoubtedly be fierce.

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