Why 'Weird Al' Yankovic Means Big Business

Weird Al Yankovic
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'Weird Al' Yankovic at Beacon Theater on Sunday night, February 6, 2000.

Riding high with 'Mandatory Fun,' his first career No. 1, the king of parodies rewrites the rule book.

"Weird Al" equals big business.

The comedian’s latest album, Mandatory Fun, which tops the Aug. 2 Billboard 200, is his 15th chart entry in a career that spans 30 years of parodies -- and his first No. 1.

Credit an ambitious rollout in which eight different clips were premiered across a range of online outlets including Reddit, YouTube and Nerdist, along with the simple fact that Yankovic, a viral video trailblazer before such a term existed, is well-suited for the immediacy of the Internet. Then there’s the music -- a take on Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” called “Tacky,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” reimagined as “Word Crimes” and Lorde’s “Royals” unfurling into “Foil,” among other hilarious sendups -- which has been blessed by the artists themselves.

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And therein lies the brilliance of the Yankovic economy. Although parody falls under the fair use provision of U.S. copyright laws (meaning Yankovic, 54, doesn’t need permission to parody a song), it has long been his personal practice to get approval from the artists, even if it means relinquishing all songwriting royalties that come with having composed new lyrics.

Yankovic’s manager of three decades, Jay Levy, says he offers a boilerplate deal. "For breathing life into the parody and writing the lyrics, we think Al deserves a portion of the writer’s share of royalties," he explains. But the pair can be just as persuasive by agreeing to take none of the publishing share. Sony/ATV, for example, allows Yankovic the right to change lyrics in parody style but retains 100 percent of the publishing for those songs.

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What does Yankovic get out of relinquishing such earnings he could rightfully claim? Performance royalties, for one, via online views and streams, downloads and TV broadcasts, and bragging rights of another kind: An artist’s endorsement via social media can greatly multiply an audience.

Levy says he deals mainly with artists’ managers, although occasionally with the talent directly -- for “Fancy,” Yankovic traveled to Denver to meet with Iggy Azalea and had to track down Williams’ personal email address to get “Tacky” approved. Yankovic says he prefers to stay out of the wrangling, deferring to Levy "for those kinds of discussions. He always goes for the best deal he can. Mostly I’m just concerned with whether I can do the song or not. As long as I get a green light, I’m happy."