Sony Planned to Sell Music-Publishing Unit Owning Beatles

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The Beatles
The Beatles are seen outside the BBC Paris Theatre in London in this April 4, 1963 handout photo. Source: Apple Corps Ltd/Universal Music Enterprises via Bloomberg

Sony Corp. was considering the sale of its music-publishing business, including a partnership with Michael Jackson’s estate that owns the Beatles catalog, as recently as last month, e-mails released by hackers show.

The “top secret” plan was being handled in the U.S. by Sony Entertainment Chief Executive Officer Michael Lynton, Sony Corp. of America President Nicole Seligman and their U.S. Chief Financial Officer Steve Kober, according to a Nov. 21 e-mail from Kober. The company had concluded the business had few growth prospects.

Top management at Tokyo-based Sony was concerned about the complex ownership and governance of the business, whose owners also include billionaire David Geffen and Abu Dhabi investors. Details of the sale plan, including possible terms or suitors, couldn’t be determined. The documents were released as part of the cyber-attack on Sony over the movie “The Interview.”

Katie Schroeder, a spokeswoman for Sony at Rubenstein Communications, declined to comment.

Shares of Sony surged 4 percent to 2,568.5 yen in Tokyo, extending this year’s gain to 41 percent.

Publishing accounts for 14 percent of Sony’s music revenue, the main part being recorded music. Sony Corp.’s Chief Financial Officer Kenichiro Yoshida raised questions about the future of music publishing in an Oct. 3 e-mail to his boss, CEO Kazuo Hirai, and Lynton, in a prelude to a meeting of the three, according to messages released by the hackers.

Sony Deliberations

“I’d like to hear your thoughts on the Music Publishing business, which has a rather complex capital and governance structure and is impacted by the market shift to streaming,” Yoshida wrote in the message.

Sony’s deliberations on the publishing business were included in a planning document sent to at least half a dozen Sony executives, according to the Nov. 21 e-mail. That included a presentation that outlined they were considering the sale.

“We are very surprised that the attached listing includes the comment about the sale of Sony/ATV,” Kober wrote. “As you know quite well, this is a top-secret project that is being handled by me working directly with Michael and Nicole.”

The publishing division includes Sony/ATV Music Publishing and EMI Music Publishing.

Music Mergers

Sony/ATV was established in 1995 as a joint venture between Sony and Jackson, who had acquired ATV 10 years earlier. Former Beatle Paul McCartney had also tried to purchase the catalog.

In 2012, Sony paid $2.2 billion for the larger EMI Music Publishing, along with investors including Jackson’s estate, Blackstone Group’s GSO Capital Partners LP, Geffen and Mubadala Development Co. owned by the Abu Dhabi government. Sony/ATV administers EMI on behalf of the investors. Messages left for Geffen, Mubadala and Blackstone weren’t returned.

Music publishers collect royalties from album sales, use on TV and other performances. The combined Sony publishing business represents stars from Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga and more than 2 million songs, including “New York, New York,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

The Japanese company and Jackson’s estate each own half of Sony/ATV, which owns more than 750,000 songs, according to a press release from 2012. EMI Music Publishing, in which Sony holds a 30 percent stake, has 1.3 million songs in its catalog.

Together, Sony/ATV and EMI represent the world’s biggest music publishing business, with Sony estimating a global market share of more than 30 percent.

The music publishing business generates about $500 million in annual revenue and $100 million in operating profit, according to a mid-range plan of Sony’s music business in October that was released by the hackers.

Publishing Growth

Sony’s music-publishing business will probably see sales rise 13 percent over three years to $617 million by fiscal year 2018, according to the mid-range plan circulated internally. Operating profit may rise 23 percent to $123 million during that period.

The e-mails were released as part of a devastating hack on Sony that the FBI said was committed by North Korea over the Hollywood studio’s plan to release the satirical movie “The Interview,” about an assassination plot against the nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

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