'Hey, Jude' Becomes First-Ever Beatles Song to Be Licensed for Use in China

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The Beatles in 1967.

For the first time, The Beatles' publisher has licensed a song by the Fab Four for use in China. "Hey Jude" appears in Yesterday Once More, a coming-of-age film from noted Chinese ­director Yao Tingting. The nearly four-minute synch, which features the two Chinese leads singing the 1968 classic in English, commanded a six-figure sum, believed to be one of the highest fees ever paid for usage in China.

The Beatles ask came in through the Beijing office of publishing company Sony/ATV and was funneled to Esther Friedman, senior vp film and TV music, who thought, "It was perfect for The Beatles," she says.

"The studio, Beijing Enlight Media, is one of the largest media groups in China, and the director is of ­significance." Plus, she adds, with the film aimed at a younger demographic with its story of high school friends grappling with the complexities of first loves, it can help introduce The Beatles' music to a new audience. "That always plays into the decision," she adds. "It was a compelling reason to say yes to this one."

Approving Beatles synchs is no small task. Sony/ATV has a "Beatles Board," an ad hoc group of company executives who discuss the flood of requests for the Fab Four's music. Master usages are seldom allowed (one notable ­exception was for an episode of Mad Men). "We're always sensitive to the setting and how the song will be used, and we wouldn't grant ­anything not in keeping with The Beatles and what they stand for," says Friedman. The usage did not require the approval of those who wrote "Hey Jude," Paul McCartney and the late John Lennon (through his widow, Yoko Ono).

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According to executive vp international Guy Henderson, the film/TV licensing business in China -- where Sony/ATV operates two offices, the other in Shanghai -- has doubled since 2011 to "a few dozen synchs" every year. A key reason for the expansion? China's exploding middle class, which a fall 2015 report by Credit Suisse named the biggest in the world. That population boom has spurred increases in advertising, including for such high-ticket items as ­luxury cars. To wit: Sony/ATV has licensed nine songs for Chinese car commercials, including Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," The Who's "My Generation" and Queen's "I Was Born to Love You." Says Henderson: "The most [common] requests are for pop music or iconic songs, such as 'Happy Together,' 'Over the Rainbow,' 'We Are the Champions' and 'We Will Rock You.'"

With licensing for both film and TV on the upswing -- as well as exposure to Anglo repertoire through legitimate ­streaming services -- Henderson expects China to be a significant revenue producer for Sony/ATV in the future. Currently, China is well behind the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, but Henderson predicts that "in time, it will become our biggest territory behind the U.K. and the U.S."

This article was originally published in the May 14 issue of Billboard.