3 - An alternative View of Brian Epstein

Return to all essays >>


3 - An alternative View of Brian Epstein

 

 

The public first became aware of the Beatles’ tangled finances in 1967 when John Lennon was asked about the band’s income by Ray Connolly of the London Evening Standard. He replied: “You mean, Not income!”

One area of Beatles scholarship which hasn’t received much attention at all by researchers is the business side, with the number one question being: “Was Brian Epstein a good manager?”

In 2003 Dennis O’Dell stated in At the Apple’s Core:

“With a few hits under their belt, most managers would have attempted to constrain their artists' desire to stretch themselves musically and to experiment with their image, merely encouraging them to repeat the same old formula until the well ran dry. Brian was possibly the first modern manager to understand that this was not the way to promote longevity and had an instinctive trust of the Beatles' own understanding of pop culture.”

 

Author Ray Coleman wrote:

 

“Brian did not have the luxury of consulting experts in entertainment law and accounting in 1963, 64... as rock was not the business that it was in the 70's, 80's, 90's”.

 

While in recent years it has become more widely known to what extent The Beatles got ripped off in merchandising and other deals, no Beatle scholar yet has been willing to hold Epstein personally responsible for their losses. To excuse his bad business practices as “nobody knew about this stuff back then” is an intellectual cop out.

 

 

 

Was he incompetent or just plain greedy?

 

Epstein knew he had no experience in arranging world tours or dealing with record companies. By early 1964 he should have behaved more sincerely and admitted to himself and The Beatles that they were now out of his league.

 

They required a level of professional management that he could not provide. There were global personal management companies at the time - in London and the US. He could have found much more competent management for The Beatles, if he had wanted to. He didn’t.

 

Epstein himself admitted: “I have no musical knowledge nor do I know very much about show business or the record business.” Even as early as late 1963 he told a reporter: “The Beatles are famous because they are good. It was not my managerial cunning.”

 

Yet this lack of critical expertise did not stop him from taking a whopping 25% of their gross income - not the usual 10% other managers worked for. In addition, all of his expenses - both for Beatle-related business and for all the other singers and groups managed by his company, NEMS - were deducted from off the top of the Beatle’s gross revenue.  Out of every dollar The Beatles earned, he got approximately 30-32%, with the four of them splitting the remaining 68-70%.

 

He also received 10% of the stock in Northern Songs; the company that was set up in February 1963 to collect Lennon-McCartney’s publishing royalties. He was merely a broker for bringing the deal to Dick James (the owner of Dick James Music and General Manager of Northern Songs) and should have gotten a commission or finder’s fee. His clients shouldn’t have had to pay him 25% of the shares they received in this new venture to monetize the publishing rights to McCartney-Lennon songs. Despite having no role to play in the creation of Beatle music, he received twelve times more shares in Northern Songs than George and Ringo got. Epstein’s 10% should have gone to them.

 

And that wasn’t all. In his 2002 book Those Were the Days, Stefan Granados writes:

 

“What may have also bothered The Beatles is the 25 percent Brian had not told them about regarding their royalty payments with EMI whereby 25 percent of all royalties would continue to go to Epstein’s company for nine years, even if his management contract was not renewed.”

 

Although it has never been explained why he was unable to sign a new record contract with EMI by the summer of 1966, the delay resulted in a major law suit in the years that followed. An audit showed that EMI owed The Beatles in excess of $30 million in royalties that they sold in “under the table” deals during the time before a new contract was signed. The court battle was resolved only in 1989 and could have been completely avoided if Epstein had hired competent advisers.

 

 

 

The problem is he never bothered to “manage” them

 

It’s hard to find any substantial contributions Epstein made to the Beatle’s financial success. While one could argue that though his PR skills served them well very, very early on in “exposing them globally,” their music quickly took over and the last thing they needed was public relations. Already by late 1963 they were in great need of professional management - even before they appeared on Ed Sullivan.

 

The notion mainstream Beatle scholars have that “Epstein discovered them” is exaggerated. Their talent would have been discovered by someone else - a year or two down the line. They wouldn’t have given up making music had they bummed around for another few years before making it big.

 

Whatever his accomplishments in the very early days of their fame, he deceived them into thinking he could continue to provide excellent management skills - which he clearly could not do. If he didn’t know what he was doing, his 25% management fee required that he learn fast. To become a better manager means time spent learning the business in which they were engaged - not living the good life (on their dime).  There’s nothing in the literature to indicate he did anything to learn more about the music business.

 

He is definitely guilty of being morally to blame for having taken advantage of them by not telling them at one point after they made it big, that it doesn’t matter what you signed back then - let’s have a contract between us which is more of the norm and then voluntarily deciding to lower his astronomical fees. He had a contractual responsibility to them - and if he couldn’t fulfill it - he could have torn up the piece of paper they signed and ended it there. He could have said to them: sorry lads, when you were an unknown band from Liverpool I was able to do something. Today - I can’t. You are way, way too big for me to help you any longer.

 

He could have been decent about it and let them out of their contract and gone as far as to find them a more capable manager in the entertainment world. He didn’t do that. Thus his legacy shouldn’t get our respect.

 

The version of Beatle history that states the four of them didn’t know anything about the business affairs, trusting him completely with these matters until late 1966, also needs to be revised. Perhaps they did know how bad he was for them much earlier on but it was merely easier for them to say we didn’t know anything about the business side and leave it all to Brian rather than admit they signed a bad deal with him.

 

Yet even if they knew they were getting ripped off, there wasn’t much they could do about it. If the issue was brought up to him, he could have told them go ahead - fire me and I’ll sue you and we’ll see how long you will be popular. The bad publicity resulting from such a split could very well have ended their fledging careers. It is likely they just said to themselves: okay, we screwed up - he has us over the barrel - let’s just forget it and try and make as much money as we can.

 

 

 

The other reason they stopped touring

 

There is absolutely no information published in the public record about how much The Beatles did or did not make from three years of constant touring from 1963 to the end of 1965. All there is to go on is a few headlines thrown around as to “how much they were offered.”

 

Put yourself in their position. After three years of non-stop touring, when they asked Epstein for a summary of their earnings - how much each of them made from each tour - how much was waiting for them in their bank accounts - they may have been shocked by finding out for how little they were actually working.

 

Major stadium concerts were years ahead of their time. Huge, costly mistakes must have been made which would have eaten up the profits. If Epstein was inept at all the other areas of management - such as merchandising - we should assume he was also incompetent when it came to arranging live performances. If he couldn’t manage their relations with EMI or the merchandising of Beatle products, why should it be assumed it was any different with their live performances? 

 

Had he been competent he could have arranged smaller concerts in concert halls - not baseball stadiums. This would have been excellent for performing and recording. It was certainly possible to ensure that screaming teenagers not be allowed to disrupt their performance by evicting them from the hall.

 

There is no doubt they would have agreed, as performing under these conditions would have been beneficial for them as musicians. The sale of records from live performances alone would have made it financially worthwhile for them. It would have also left the public with a treasure chest of additional records and recorded performances. It’s doubtful that they would have complained if they performed 10-20 times a year in four or five cities. They didn’t have to stop performing if Epstein would have arranged a venue which allowed them to hear themselves play.

 

This didn’t happen because their manager didn’t make it happen. He was their manager. Why didn’t he “manage” them?

 

The four Beatles paid a huge personal price and sacrificed a huge part of themselves in those three years of constant touring. Their rise to global stardom could have been accomplished in a more well-thought out manner with more time for relaxing on long tours and more attention paid by their manager to the logistics of the concerts. They would have become just as famous slowly as they did quickly as their number one hits would have continued regardless of how much time they did - or did not - spend touring.

 

Too many Beatle scholars are far too quick to excuse Epstein’s mistakes. He was never the “wonder boy” the mainstream historical record makes him out to be. As their business manager, he was a colossal failure.

 

 

 

Epstein was a horrible tour manager

 

While the world still thinks their August 15th, 1965 performance in front of 55,000 people at Shea Stadium was, as Wikipedia calls it “one of the most famous concert events of its era”, in fact, it was a complete disaster.

The main topic of conversation of the roadies and the people arranging the stage was “which barrier from which side of the stadium was going to collapse first allowing the fans to rush the stage.”

It took decades for the public to hear the truth of the horrors of the Beatles’ touring days. In 2006, the BBC’s Timeswatch program interviewed journalist Larry Kane who travelled extensively with them on their US tours. He explained how bad Epstein’s overall management had been. Even in the 1966 tour - the third one he had managed - there were huge logistical problems.

 

In the first US tour in 1964 they visited 25 cities in 30 days. In 1965, they travelled to eleven cities in under two weeks; in 1966, 14 in 17 days. Instead of sticking to the major US metropolises, Epstein arranged concerts in such second-tier cities as Minneapolis, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Atlantic City, Indianapolis and Kansas City.

 

They could have played in just major cities and the fans would have travelled from far and wide to see them. He could have spaced out the shows so they would have some time to wind down, relax, and even sight-see. Why was he unable to arrange enough security so that they would be safe to leave their hotel rooms?

 

His incompetence even endangered their lives. The BBC documentary described the chaos:

 

“The management of the tours was completely amateurship. There were huge scheduling and logistics failings on all the US tours, especially Shea Stadium in August 1965.  In St. Louis it was raining hard and the management of the stadium refused to spend $400 to buy a cover for the stage. Electrical sparks were flying everywhere. Every time McCartney approached the microphone he got an electrical shock and could have been electrocuted.”

 

Journalist Chris Hitchens, who accompanied them on the 1965 tour, added:

 

“On the chartered flight from Minneapolis to Portland an engine on the plane caught fire. It didn’t surprise any of us. They couldn’t even rely on their management to secure them a decent aircraft. The vehicles they rented for their equipment were always either too small or broke down. Everything that could go wrong- went wrong- because of poor management.”

 

 

 

How Epstein got them to agree to the 1966 “summer tour from hell”

The Beatles should not have agreed to go on tour in the summer of 1966 after Revolver was finished. By January 1966 they must have already had it with touring; after finding out how little money they had made in the past three years, they told Epstein “that’s it, no more.”

By this time they may have still “loved” him, even though they had lost all confidence in him to even get out of bed - let alone manage their business affairs. His addictions must have begun in 1964 and 1965, and thus in early 1966 they knew exactly what his mental state was.

After they had returned from the summer 1965 tour of the US and the months following, they probably didn’t see him very much. In mid-1966 he probably started asking them to “do just one more tour - for me”, and considering how pathetic he must have looked at that point, they must have felt sorry for him and said “okay- one more- but that’s it - don’t ask us again.”

 

What he needed was the four of them to stage an “intervention” to get him help to cure his additions. It’s likely they failed him because they were too busy with their own lives, and maybe, they didn’t feel as close to him in 1966 as they did in 1964. Whatever the reasons, they didn’t stand up to him and the result was the “1966 summer tour from hell”.

 

By this time, Epstein had no control over his own life - let alone be in a position to manage their global tours.

 

For instance, even before they left the UK on the 1966 world tour on July 1st, an ultra-nationalist group in Japan threatened them with death if they played at the Budokan Hall in Tokyo. Why didn’t Epstein cancel the performance?

 

The next week in The Philippines they narrowly escaped being lynched.  

 

It’s never been explained why it was so important that they visit this Third World country and perform at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium in Manila.

 

The problem there started when the First Family of that country believed they had arranged for a private visit with the group. It’s possible that this was indeed the case but that Epstein - drugged out of his mind by then - simply forgot about the commitment he had made.

 

Had he not agreed, why was the First Family waiting to receive them? It can be assumed they had an appointments secretary that arranged these types of functions and receptions.  They were certainly under the impression they would show up and had no reason to make the whole thing up.

 

It’s no wonder the country turned against them as they really did snub the First Family. However it was Epstein’s fault completely. Who else is there to blame but him?

 

By the end of July protests and record burnings had begun in the American Deep South over Lennon’s remark comparing The Beatles to Jesus. It should have been clear to Epstein that concerts in any city in the American south - where protests had broken out -should have been cancelled. A day before the performance in the very conservative city of Memphis, Tennessee, a Ku Klux Klan official gave a TV interview and in a very threatening tone, said “The Beatles would not be allowed to come here and play.” Firecrackers were fired off during the concert and The Beatles quickly fled the city fearing for their lives.

 

When asked at a press conference before the concert, “In light of the threats against them would he cancel the performance in those cities?” he replied: “If the promoters were so concerned and this was their wish, I would not stand in their way.”

 

The decision was not for the local promoters, but for Epstein to make - along with suffering any resultant financial loss.

 

 

 

 

 

How he hurt The Beatles artistically

 

Epstein can also be blamed for stunting the ability of The Beatles to develop musically in a live framework by being unable to arrange concerts where they could hear themselves play. He could have booked them into smaller venues where the crowd could have been controlled, creating an environment for them in which to perform live. Over the years, all four of them would look back and remark how much better their musicianship was before they created their music in the studio rather than live on stage.

 

It is not intellectually honest for Beatle scholars to accept the mainstream historical record and contend: “The constant touring and the unruly audiences made them give up live performances” as if nobody was responsible for creating such a situation. Or that “being forced into the studio made their records better.”  This is nonsense. They could have been both a great live band and a great studio band.

 

Epstein also hurt them artistically by refusing to back up his clients, instead giving in to the demands of EMI and Capital Records with their commercial desire for new singles. Against the wishes of all four Beatles, in May 1966 the single Paperback Writer/Rain was issued. Both songs were more suited to be on Revolver, which came out just three months later. He did the exact same thing a year later when he refused to stand up to the record companies when they insisted on releasing Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane in February 1967, instead of on Sgt. Peppers in June. The decision was made against the strenuous objection of George Martin, who has always publicly criticized it. It would be the first single since 1962 not to reach Number One.

 

 

 

What did they really think of him?

 

 

 

What did the four of them think of his managerial expertise? While generations of Beatle fans believed the mainstream view that “we loved Brian - he was the 5th Beatle”, it is unlikely they loved him so much after they found out how much he cost them.

 

 

 

Lennon complained: “What I used to be is guilty about money. That's why I lost it, either by giving it away or by allowing myself to be screwed by so-called managers.”

 

 

 

Shortly after the break-up, Harrison said about Epstein:  “He made some very unwise decisions. We got screwed in business all the time.”

 

In McCartney’s 1997 autobiography, writer Barry Miles reports on a conversation between Epstein and James Isherwood, a chartered accountant who advised him on tax matters. One has to assume that Miles didn’t have access to this conversation when it took place and so either Isherwood told him the story, or McCartney himself is the source of it. Whether the conversation actually took place or not only McCartney knows. It has no business being in the book, other than perhaps to give him the opportunity to hit back at Epstein for ripping him (them) off so badly.   

 

Miles writes:

 

“Only after Brian had taken his cut were expenses deducted and the remaining money divided equally between the four of them. James Isherwood was surprised since, in his experience, most agents were working for a 10 percent cut. He recalled the conversation: 

 

“ ‘So,' I said, 'isn't 25 per cent rather a lot? Particularly as all the expenses have to be paid out of their shares as well?' 'Perhaps it is,' he agreed, 'but that's the deal I've made. After all, I've financed the whole thing so far, and they haven't contributed anything.'  'Well, if that's the deal and they're happy, there's nothing more to be said,' I replied.”

 

How does McCartney (or Miles) know of these private discussions - to be able to reproduce them in such a precise manner? They could be complete fiction. Or, they could be reconstructions of conversations McCartney heard or thinks may have taken place between Epstein and Isherwood.

 

The bigger question is why they’re even in the book. Who would have expected this type of info to be in his self-written autobiography? It is in there for a reason and not by accident or coincidence. What is he trying to tell us?

 

 

 

An offer they definitely could refuse

 

In 2000, with the launch of the Anthologies book, the BBC reported that the four of them were asked to sign a contract by Epstein which would have earned them just £100,000 each over their entire career. Epstein offered to pay the four of them a fixed wage and wanted them to agree to a £50-a-week deal for life. The book (which was authorized by the three remaining band members at the time) claimed that in this way he “hoped to keep the rest of the band's earnings for himself in return for guiding the group to stardom.”

 

Two decades earlier Harrison brought up the offer in his autobiography:

 

 

 

“We got £25 a week in the early Sixties when we were first with Brian. My dad earned £10 a week, so I was earning two-and-a-half times more than my father then we started earning much more, but Brian would keep it and pay us wages. He once tried to get us to sign a deal saying he would guarantee us £50-a-week forever and he would keep the rest. We thought, `No we'll risk it, Brian. We'll risk earning a bit more than £50 a week.”

 

 

 

Perhaps the three of them put it out there decades later just so they can somehow feel they have absolved themselves of their stupidity for their mistakes in not getting rid of him earlier. They could have just as easily not mentioned the offer as they didn’t accept it anyway. If it was a complete fiction then obviously the three of them are trying to get back at Epstein by enshrining this type of information in their official version of their legacy.

 

 

 

It’s also possible that Epstein never even suggested such a deal- and the whole story is nothing but a juicy piece of “Beatle disinformation.”  When studying Beatle history, it’s easy to fall prey to “conventional wisdom” as our affection for the characters involved skews our judgment of what sounds like it could be the truth - or a truth we want to very much believe.

 


Return to all essays >>