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How much is a song ‘worth’?

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We’re going to stay well away from spoiler territory here, but anyone who watched last Sunday’s episode of ‘Mad Men’ – the stylish soap opera (come on, admit it) about 1960s advertising execs – will have witnessed something very remarkable indeed. Lead character Don Draper sat down and listened to The Beatles.

Nothing amazing about that, one might think. Until you realise that licensing a Beatles track for anything – film, TV, whatever – has long been seen as an absolute impossibility. There a number of reasons behind this, the main one being that the Fab Four (Terrific Two?) are notoriously protective of their legacy, and refuse to let their music be used as an accompaniment to other media. Think about it: you may have seen cover versions in certain movies, but – Beatles self-made productions aside – you’ve never seen an actual original recording featured.

Mad Men has dared to go where others fear to tread, however, and – insisting that the track was the perfect fit – persuaded Apple Corps to let them use thirty seconds of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the frenzied final track from Revolver that arguably stands as the group’s defining moment.

The price?

$250,000.

Let’s go over that again.

$250,000.

For thirty f**king seconds.

This isn’t even to say that most other licensing opportunities are cheap – using a Rolling Stones hit, say, would set you back a not-inconsiderable 100 grand. But it all raises the issue of what a song is ‘worth’ – and whether such preciousness/financial giganticism is an inescapable thing of the past.

It’s clear that we’re dealing with Big Boys here: Mad Men is one of the highest-rated and critically acclaimed shows on TV, while The Beatles are, well, The Beatles. Both aren’t exactly short of cash. But this whole scenario seems like the dying gasp of a great empire – a time when the distribution system for TV and music was a private club, a locked-down suit and tie venue available only to those with the authority to get there (kind of like the Sterling Cooper offices in a way).

Can you imagine a show being made in fifty years time about the modern era? What kind of music do you think they would use? And do you think any band would be able to get away with charging a quarter of a million to use one of their tunes? No-one is saying artists shouldn’t get paid, but such over the odds cash-exchange harks back to an era in which rock stars were untouchable gods. Nowadays – with the advent of a rising breed of ‘middle-class’ musician – such a future deal would be carried out on a practical, reasonable, well-budgeted level (yes, even with artistic considerations included).

Oh: we know. It’s The Beatles. They’re an exception. Alongside Michael Jackson, they’re the act who define the 20th century. So: in three hundred years time, when they’re held in cultural terms alongside Shakespeare and their recordings are free for anyone to get hold of, what will have changed? Will the music be worth ‘less’ because no money is changing hands?

Those in old-school authority (whatever the industry) will always try to up the price whenever they can. A new, more communal and progressive music industry (we’ve no choice in a digital world, kids) will deal with that issue eventually. In the meantime, though, the question remains: how do you judge the monetary ‘worth’ of a particular song against another?

What do you guys think? Leave your thoughts in the comment box below. And then treat yourself to the best clip from Mad Men ever. Ignore this Beatles nonsense – this is where it’s at:

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