The Beatles Appear In Mad Men For A Measly $250K

Don Draper gets down with da yoof by listening to the Beatles. Image: AMC

The makers of hit 1960s-set TV series Mad Men are rumoured to have paid around US$250,000 for the finale of this week’s episode, in which adman Don Draper is seen in his groovy sunken lounge listening to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, from the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver.

This isn’t the series’ first Beatles reference; a 2010 episode in which Don Draper takes his daughter Sally to see the band at Shea Stadium ended with Santo & Johnny’s late-1964 instrumental version of ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’

But an original Fab Four recording has long been the white whale of movie and TV producers, due to one of the music world’s most tightly guarded set of soundtrack rights.

“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,” Mad Men creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner told The New York Times. “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.”

Nobody associated with Mad Men will speak on record about how much Lionsgate, the parent company of network AMC, paid for the rights to the song, but the rumoured $250K is up to five times more than most pop songs.

The Beatles’ oeuvre is overseen by Apple Corps, a consortium run by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the surviving partners of John Lennon and George Harrison, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison. Luckily for Weiner, who beseeched them directly, they’re Mad Men fans.

EMI owns the master recordings, but the publishing rights to more than 200 songs were notoriously snapped up by Michael Jackson in 1985. The band had sold them off, reluctantly, in 1969; Paul McCartney only discovered his friend Jackson owned them when he tried to print ‘Eleanor Rigby’ lyrics on the program of his 1989 world concert tour.

Jackson’s estate still holds those rights, which cover the reproduction of lyrics and sheet music. But they don’t cover original recordings.

In November 2010, Apple acquired the digital rights in a hard-fought battle with Google and Amazon. Beatles songs had previously been absent from the iTunes Music Store due to a long-running trademark dispute between Apple Inc and Apple Corps.

Films tend to have more budget than TV to include Beatles songs. ‘Yesterday’ is heard in a cafe scene in the 1975 film Shampoo, while ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ lent its title to the 1985 Patrick Dempsey teen comedy. The 1992 film Secrets, which follows teenagers locked in the basement of the Beatles’ hotel on their Australian tour, features some Beatles recordings, plus covers by Dave Dobbyn. Julie Taymor’s 2007 film Across the Universe also plumped for only Beatles covers.

Was Mad Men‘s money well spent? In addition to the usual intertextual meanings that music adds, the episode’s storyline featured a client hoping to score coolsie points with an ad shamelessly riffing on the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night.

But since Beatles songs are impossible to license (in an earlier episode, Don Draper had already tried and failed to secure the Rolling Stones for another client), the alternative soundtrack suggested by the client is embarrassingly cheesy and dated. But at the end of the episode, Draper puts on the real thing.

As Forbes magazine’s Jeff Berkovici observes, “Message: You can do it on the cheap, or you can do it right.”

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