The most profitable song is “Margaritaville”

Copyrighting the words of “Margaritaville” as well as trademarking the name has been quite lucrative for Jimmy Buffett:

To think that all of this poured forth from a goofy, three-chord song—a mere 208 words, roughly half the length of this article—written about being lazy and getting drunk. But as Buffett’s Parrothead empire continues to spread, one can’t help but wonder whether a more lucrative song exists. “If there is anything on the same scale as a Margaritaville, it’s not a song—it’s a motion picture,” says Robert Brauneis, a professor of intellectual property at the George Washington University Law School and author of a research paper on Happy Birthday to You, which continues to generate upwards of $2 million a year. “When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, you have to think in terms of Star Wars, Winnie the Pooh, or Transformers. That’s probably in the same order of magnitude.”

As a recording, Margaritaville doesn’t post stratospheric numbers. After debuting on Buffett’s 1977 album Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude, it peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard 100 charts. According to the 2012 BBC documentary The Richest Songs in the World, Margaritaville doesn’t crack the top 10, which is populated by three Christmas songs. The two highest-ranking pop songs are You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, by the Righteous Brothers, and Yesterday, by the Beatles. (No. 1 was Happy Birthday to You.) “If you want to get technical, there are two Margaritavilles,” says Brauneis. “There’s the copyright that protects the song, which is valuable because of the stream of income. Then there’s the trademark that has developed out of the song’s title, and legally that’s a different piece of intellectual property.”

Of course, this means the song and the brand are separate legal entities and could, in theory, be sold separately. But this isn’t the case. If you want to check Buffett’s tour dates, there’s no—there’s only, where his music career and the rest of his empire are seamlessly melded into one site.

“From a larger business perspective, when you combine the two and look at what the song stands for as a lifestyle and as a branding vehicle,” says Brauneis, “it’s worth far more than Happy Birthday. I can’t think of another example of a song that has that total impact.”

The key here is not really the song itself but the business opportunities the song has led to. This is spectacular branding: Buffett and others have created a sellable lifestyle out of the song and there has been a willing set of consumers willing to eat at the restaurant, buy merchandise, and go to concerts. It is hard to imagine a “Yesterday” themed restaurant – the song is really sort of sad – or one centered around “Happy Birthday” as this is an event that only comes around once a year. Indeed, it would be interesting to see how other artists have tried to capitalize on individual songs and the outcomes of those ventures. Is there any other song that could potentially lead to such financial opportunities? Is this a future source of income for musical artists?

Covering file-sharing appeal

I’m going to be attending oral arguments here in Boston before the First Circuit Court of Appeals in the Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum case (Wikipedia backgrounder) later this morning.  Appellate briefs are available here, summary from the defendant’s perspective here.

Check back later today for more commentary and analysis.

Exploring the messages embedded in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Political scientist Dominic Tierney explores the cultural and religious meanings and values behind the familiar American song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Some of his thoughts on the song:

But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. Based on ideas from my new book, How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War, we can see how the nation’s experience is intimately connected to this crusader’s cry…

The totemic poem has guided the United States through many military trials. The “Battle Hymn” epitomizes the strengths of this nation: its optimism, and its moral courage. It’s a song of agency, of action, a call to sacrifice together for the cause. The soldiers who march to the “Battle Hymn” have helped to liberate millions.

But there is a dark side to the “Battle Hymn” and the American way of war. The righteous zeal of America’s war effort can excuse almost any sins—like killing hundreds of thousands of enemy civilians. When Americans loose the fateful lightning, they have no moral guilt, for they are the tools of God.

This is a fascinating topic, particularly considering that the song came out of the Northern side of the Civil War but seems to have later been adopted by a majority of Americans. A song like this does reflect the American narrative, the story that we tell about ourselves over the years and also helps interpret our current situation.

And yet, I feel like I have rarely heard this song in recent years – the more common American hymn is “America, the Beautiful” which seems to adopt a very different tone, particularly in its first verse which opens with images of nature though its later verses pick up on some of the same themes. What explains a shift away from “The Battle Hymn,” if this has indeed happened? What happens or changes when “The Battle Hymn” is used in settings that have less to do with war – would other songs be preferred then or are there causes today that could or would utilize this song and its messages?