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Outgoing Sony/ATV Chief Martin Bandier on His Five Biggest Deals (EXCLUSIVE)

The veteran publisher also talks about the ones that got away, and a funny encounter with Michael Jackson.

Friday was Martin Bandier’s last day as chairman and CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, a company he built from being the fourth-largest publisher in the U.S. to by far the world’s biggest — one that has been No. 1 in every quarter for the past six years except one. Today, Jon Platt, former CEO of Warner/Chappell Music Publishing and a longtime colleague of Bandier’s at EMI, takes the helm. In part two of Variety’s exclusive final-week interview with him (see part one, and the full biographical introduction here), Bandier talks about the five deals he’s most proud of, the ones that got away (including a memorable encounter with Michael Jackson), and how to learn from losing.

If you had to narrow your career down to the five deals you’re most proud of, what would they be?
My entire career sort of blended together. One would be when I was partners with Charles Koppelman [from the 1975 until the early 1990s, first as The Entertainment Company and later SBK] and we acquired CBS Songs [in 1986] — I think it was the largest publishing acquisition ever up to that time. We paid somewhere between $125-130 million, and no one had paid that amount of money for a publishing company before. I think I hocked everything I had to meet whatever equity requirements the bank had for making that acquisition, and from day one it proved to be an incredible acquisition — it really launched us into another place.

I had heard CBS might be for sale and I went to my college friend Stephen Swid and said, “CBS is now run by Larry Tisch, I know you have a relationship with him, can you check?” He called me in the middle of the next week — “I’ve got great news, it’s for sale. We should buy it!” I said, “What do you mean ‘we’? I already have a partner.” He said, “Let me tell you how I can be helpful” – and he was. He became the “S” in SBK and that launched us into becoming a major overnight.

After that, Jobete [the Motown publishing wing, which contains many of the legendary label’s biggest hits by Smokey Robinson (pictured above with Bandier), Diana Ross, the Temptations and more]. I grew up loving everything about Motown and R&B. I lost out on it before we ultimately bought it — I spent a year negotiating with Berry Gordy and he decided he didn’t want to sell. He paid our legal fees and costs, but as deflated as I was at that time, I still believed that music should be in the right hands. So I maintained a close relationship with him, and one day [years later, when Bandier was at EMI] he called and said “Do you want to buy half the company?” and I said “Yep!” I told him we would grow that company so much that when he sold the second half it would be worth significantly more than what we paid him and of course that was the case. [Gordy sold 50% of Jobete to EMI in 1997 for $132 million, another 30% in 2003 for $110 million, and the final 20% for around $80 million the following year.]

And then, [Sony/ATV’s 2012 acquisition of EMI for $2.3 billion], for me that was like coming home, it sort of interwove with everything in my life. And it put Sony/ATV over the top and made us the No. 1 publisher in the world, where we’ve stayed since that time.

And shortly after I got to Sony in 2007, we bought Famous Music, which was an unbelievable, underexploited, underutilized catalog. I remember Howard Stringer saying, “We’re paying a lot of money for music publishing assets,” and I said, “I think that’s why you hired me – trust me, this is an incredible investment,” and of course it turned out that way. Howard was a big supporter and believed in intellectual property.

And finally, the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller catalog [who wrote many hits in the 1950s and ’60s for Elvis Presley, Ben E. King, the Drifters, the Coasters and more]  — those two guys were of course were the architects of the [rock and roll] sound and had so many hits.

Are there any deals that got away that are particularly vivid?
How about buying the ATV catalog? Of course, Sony now controls it, but [in the early 1980s] my partner and I went to London and struck a deal with an Australian guy named Robert Holmes a Court. I guess you would call him a business raider — he had acquired ATV, which of course included Northern Songs, the Beatles’ [Lennon-McCartney] catalog — through an acquisition of some other company. We struck a deal to buy ATV from him, but when we went to close that transaction, we were told he was selling it to Michael Jackson instead! Michael had agreed to do a concert in Perth [Australia], where Robert Holmes came from. I looked at my partner and said, “I know you can’t do a Moonwalk, so I think this knocks us out of the game.” (Laughter.)

But the good thing that came out of that — you always have to look at the good side — is the lawyer who represented Michael was John Branca. It’s funny, I saw him on the plane when we were flying to London [thinking they were closing the ATV deal] and I said what are you doing here? “Oh… I’ve got some business in London.” (laughs) But you know what? We were bested and we learned from it: So when we bought CBS Songs I hired him, thinking “We’re not gonna be surprised by him again!” You can’t win all the time, but the value comes if you learn from it.

Years later, I had to go before the Sony/ATV board before my contract became final, and on the board were Jesse Jackson and Michael Jackson. Michael was on a [speakerphone] and I told him the story about how we lost out to him on ATV. And Michael said, “See Jesse? I told you I was a good publisher! Marty, welcome to Sony/ATV!” (laughter)

And of course, when SBK tried to buy Jobete and Berry decided not to sell, that was sorta traumatic. I had spent almost a year with [Koppelman] going through trials and tribulations, meeting Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross and a whole host of other players in the Motown family and making them feel comfortable. What did I learn from that? That Berry was someone that I still wanted to stay close to, because I believed he was such an incredible talent. He had both of those spectacular qualities: he understood music and songs, and at the same time he was a brilliant businessman. So I did, and I ended up buying it — although not for me but for someone else [EMI].

How does it feel when you have so many legendary songs under your roof?
These catalogs are all part of my soul. I’m just a song junkie who falls in love the songs we have. I remember when we acquired CBS Songs, I spent weeks and weeks just listening to every song that was in there — I would call my brother, who was 10 years older than me and was a huge big-band fan: “Can you believe my partners and I own [Benny Goodman’s hit] ‘Sing Sing Sing’? I remember you playing it when I was a little boy.” I will miss that, because I can’t refer to any of those songs as being a part of what I’m doing anymore. All I can say is, “They used to have something to do with me.”

Hmm, there might be a good country song in that title (laughter) …

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