Our world: the Beatles can get $250k for the use of an original recording on a TV show

I’ve seen/heard several discussions of the use of the Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows” to close the most recent episode of Mad Men. Here is some of the story behind how the show was able to get permission to use the song – for $250,000:

 “It was always my feeling that the show lacked a certain authenticity because we never could have an actual master recording of the Beatles performing,” Matthew Weiner, the creator and show runner of “Mad Men,” said in a telephone interview on Monday. “Not just someone singing their song or a version of their song, but them, doing a song in the show. It always felt to me like a flaw. Because they are the band, probably, of the 20th century.”…

Near the end of the “Mad Men” episode, titled “Lady Lazarus” and written by Mr. Weiner, the advertising executive Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) finds himself struggling to understand youth culture and is given a copy of the Beatles album “Revolver,” a new release in the summer of 1966.

But instead of starting his listening experience with the album’s acerbic lead-off track, “Taxman,” Draper instead skips to its final — and, shall we say, more experimental — song, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” contemplating it for a few puzzled moments before he shuts it off. (That psychedelic song, with its signature percussion loops and distorted John Lennon vocals, also plays over the closing credits of the episode.)…

To win the company’s approval in this case, Mr. Weiner said, “I had to do a couple things that I don’t like doing, which is share my story line and share my pages.” He added that he received the approval from Apple Corps last fall, about a month before filming started on the episode.

Several thoughts:

1. Does this show that the Beatles still matter? On one hand, yes: the creator said he wanted to have an authentic Beatles song on his show. On the other hand, this is a show about the 1960s – it is a period piece, a “retro cool” show, not a show about the modern day that would show the current relevance of the Beatles. The creator suggests they are the band of the 20th century, inviting questions about who might be the artist of the 21st century.

2. Contra #1 above, the Beatles can still get $250k for the use of their song. Is this about the greatness of their work or because they have been so tight in who is able to license their music? Are the copyright holders of the Beatles music (some combo of Michael Jackson’s estate and Sony?) simply waiting for McCartney and Starr to die so they can reap a windfall from licensing?

3. The article doesn’t discuss this but the selection of “Tomorrow Never Knows” is particularly interesting. This song would never make it on a Beatles “greatest hits” album (it is not on the 1 album or the Red or Blue albums of the 1970s). It is buried at the end of the Revolver album. At the same time, many books and critics acknowledge that this song is a turning point in the group’s career. It was actually the first recorded song for Revolver, an album noted by many critics as the greatest album (or one of the top 3) of all time. It was a sharp departure from earlier Beatles music: in a few short years, the group had moved from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to Lennon singing about ideas from The Tibetan Book of the Dead with all sorts of studio effects like backward guitar around him. My guess is that the playing of song means that Don Draper’s is about to take an interesting turn (along with the rest of the 1960s).

4. A question about copyright: will the Beatles music ever become part of the public domain? It would be a shame if it does not.

5. How long until we live in a world when nobody knows about or cares about the Beatles? I’m particularly interested in the changes that will happen when the Baby Boomer generation fades away…

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