Merchandising The Beatles

Merchandising among today's music artists is quite common.  I first became aware of this type of thing when I saw some Elvis Presley comic books in the late 50's.  After Elvis came the British Invasion and the musical phenomenon known as The Beatles.  I think that the merchandising that occurred during the heady days of Beatlemania was perhaps the most rampant branding of a group of music artists that I can recall.

From an article by Nathan Jolly on The History of Music Merch: "As with most things in modern music – it started with The Beatles. Every year the Elvis Presley estate pulls in $40 million in revenue, however Elvis Presley Enterprises, the arm set up to hopefully profit from Elvis merchandising was set up in 1954, and lay dormant for many years, until his death in 1977. Brian Epstein, The Beatles manager was an instinctive musical magnet, however as a band manager he was inexperienced and lacked forethought, which led to both the slew of official Beatles merchandise flooding the early ‘60s market, and the appalling low profits that the band saw from it. Of course, as with most new business opportunities, few saw the potential at the time. In late ’63 Epstein handed The Beatles merchandising arm over to his solicitor, David Jacobs who in turn handed it to Nicky Byrne who he had met at a party. They issued an official licence to companies in return for 10% of the profits. And so started the onslaught of tat. The meteoric rise of The Beatles meant that a lot of business deals were not accounted for, and records were shabbily kept, if at all. Their were no clear records of which companies were officially licensed to create Beatles merchandise, and the indiscriminate nature in which licences were issued meant that almost every imaginable product was affixed with The Beatles name or likeness. Press officer Derek Taylor recalls that a US company wrote asking if they could sell their bath water at one dollar a bottle. Elsewhere it was no less crazy.  In 1964, a factory in the US was manufacturing 35,000 Beatle wigs per day, a Liverpool bakery sold 100,000 Ringo rolls in two days, and a Blackpool company received an order for 10 million sticks of liquorice with the Beatles’ name on it. Beatles chewing gum made millions of dollars within a few months, while in New York a ballsy entrepreneur marketed empty cans of Beatle Breath."










"At the time, very few managers of pop groups knew about the income music merchandising could generate, as very few artists survived long enough in the pop domain to be a viable investment. As far as Epstein was concerned it was merely good public relations, and any revenue that arose from the sale of Beatles-endorsed products was regarded as merely extra money that supplemented the Beatles' individual incomes from live performances and record sales. Epstein had not recognized an industry which had grossed $20 million for Elvis Presley in 1957 alone. Alistair Taylor (Epstein's assistant) later admitted that financial mistakes were made: "We did our best; some people have said it wasn't good enough. That's easy to say with 20/20 hindsight but remember that there were no rules. We were making it up as we went along." (Wikipedia)


The Beatles, Brian Epstein and solicitor, David Jacobs

From Guns, Cash and Rock 'n' Roll: The Managers: "The Beatles incredible success attracted gold-diggers; Brian Epstein was approached by many companies, often American, who wanted licences to manufacture items with The Beatles' name and picture on them.  These Epstein had been granting on an ad hoc basis, but it was a very time-consuming and unsatisfactory way of doing things.  Someone had to take charge and Epstein delegated the mess to his solicitor, David Jacobs.  Jacobs ran into one Nicky Byrne at a party...Byrne said he would love to have a crack at it, and immediately set up a consortium of English businessmen who persuaded Epstein's lawyer to grant them the rights for all Beatles merchandise, which they would sell.  In return, Byrne would payThe Beatles 10 per cent of the profits and retain 90 per cent for his partners.  Epstein, perhaps unaware of the huge amounts that would be made, or possibly to busy to give the matter his full attention, agreed.  Byrne struck pay dirt.  It is now generally recognized that the 10/90 split should have been totally the other way around.  There was a torrent of licensing applications, including that of a Texas businessman who had met John Lennon on a flight and offered the stunned Beatle $3 million for the rights to open 'Beatleburger Palaces'.  With an eye for a fast buck, an American company wrote asking if The Beatles would let them sell their bath water at $1 per bottle.  A radio station in Vancouver offered to buy The Beatles hotel beds.  Byrne moved to the States and started making (and spending) millions.  Beatle watches, pens, towels, T-shirts, lunch boxes, wigs, magazines, Zippo lighters, ashtrays - you name it - flooded onto the market.  Even now, a search of EBay turns up hundreds of categories of Beatles products and many thousands of Beatles merchandised items for sale.  Everyone, it seems, was making money out of The Beatles except The Beatles themselves and inevitably a massive dispute blew up between Byrne's Seltaeb company (Beatles spelled backwards, just like the royalty rates) and Epstein and other companies, who felt that they had the rights to manufacture and sell this or that."





"In Philip Norman's book Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation, there was a separate squabble between Byrne and some of his partners, who alleged at the time that Byrne was squandering huge amounts of money on himself.  Byrne based himself in a hotel and it was said he kept two limousines on twenty-four hour call and had a helicopter to ferry businessmen to and from the airport.  It was also claimed that he'd run up a bill of $50,000 in personal expenses and used company money to pay his girlfriend's charge accounts.  NEMS (Epstein's company) sued Seltaeb and Seltaeb counter-sued NEMS. and ordered it to pay over $5 million.  A worried Epstein needed a new lawyer to sort out the mess.  The lawyer asked for a hefty $50,000 retainer, which Epstein paid with his own money, perhaps as a tacit admission of culpability, or at the very least of a degree of negligence in the running of The Beatles' affairs.  It's estimated that the consumer spending on Beatles-branded products in the USA in 1964 came in at $50 million.  The potential losses worldwide were incalculable. The lawsuits went on for years and it was to become Epstein's bete noire."












"Brian Epstein's problems with Seltaeb would remain with him until his death on 27 August 1967, from what was ruled an accidental overdose of a prescribed drug. Many investors had missed out on massive profits following the cancelling of contracts, and Byrne would later claim of having received two mysterious phone calls foretelling of Epstein's death. Jacobs was found hanged in his garage on 15 December 1968. Days before his death, Jacobs had asked for police protection, telling a private detective, 'I'm in terrible trouble, they're all after me,' and going on to list six well-known show business people. Nicky Byrne retired to the Bahamas on his yacht." (Wikipedia)


Soon after Epstein's death, The Beatles regained control of their merchandising as they began to pursue their own ideas about Beatles related products as well as taking complete charge of such group projects as the film, Magical Mystery Tour. 


By 1968, the group had started Apple, their own corporate conglomerate which included a record label.  Apple was not a particularly successful business venture as the members of the Beatles lacked the business skills needed to develop artists and deal with the daily demands of running a record label.


Among the various business ventures the group pursued under the Apple conglomerate during this period was the Apple Boutique in London which only managed to stay in business for 8 months. 



"The night before the closing The Beatles, their wives and girlfriends came to take what they wanted. The next morning it was announced that all the remaining stock was to be given away on the basis of one item per person. In his interview on The Beatles’ Anthology George Harrison describes the event: 'We ended up giving the contents away. We put an ad in the paper and we filmed people coming in and grabbing everything.' Word spread quickly and the shop was empty within hours. The public, numbering in the hundreds nearly rioted trying to get their share and the police attended." (


Another project from 1968 that was part of the Apple corporation was the animated film Yellow Submarine which provided merchandising opportunities such as these figurines of various characters from the film.  "It’s about the most 60s thing imaginable. The animation, led by Heinz Edelmann, is in the vein of psychedelic artists Martin Sharp and Alan Aldridge, or graphic design outfits of the era such as The Fool and Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. Flowers and foliage curl and multiply in eye-popping hues. Flat outlined figures look like Aubrey Beardsley drawings on acid. Watercolour shading on landscapes and plants lends an unsettling beauty. Seas of monsters seem drawn straight from the animator’s subconscious. It’s a trip." (BBC.Com)


With the advent of the internet, The Beatles transformed themselves into a merchandising powerhouse with their BEATLES.COM site which features a wide variety of products including newly remastered versions of their albums, kitschy jewelry, casual apparel, kitchenware, collectible knick knacks and limited edition artwork.

From a 2013 article in Rolling Stone magazine: "The Universal Music Group announced that they acquired the rights to the Fab Four's merchandise in North America. The Beatles' business firm, Apple Corps., partnered with Universal's Bravado division to license a new line of the band's products."  From the Almost Alone site: "The obvious question is, considering the slew of music merchandise available in the ‘60s, why did it take until the ‘70s for the rock band t-shirt, a staple at live concerts for the past 40 years, to gain prominence? The answer lies less in a lack of marketing savvy and more in the fact that t-shirts had not yet come into common usage. The late ‘60s saw tie-dyed t-shirts pop up across drugged-out festivals across America, while sloganeering political t-shirts had been available in short runs throughout the ‘50s, such as the ‘I Love Ike’ campaign of 1952. As a whole these instances were few and far between, and it took the explosion of arena rock, and the shift from the psychedelic optimism of the ‘60s to the satanic rock overtones of the ‘70s music scene to herald the era of the black rock t-shirt…Merchandise is more important than ever. With record sales plummeting, and piracy rife, merchandise is one of the few remaining physical properties that still has a currency. As Bob Mould from Husker Du said, ‘you can’t download a T-shirt.’”



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