Financial imbalance

The release of The Concert For Bangladesh was delayed for three months due to lengthy negotiations between Harrison and the labels EMI/Capitol and Columbia/CBS, who were eager to protect their business interests.

The first press reports about the delay appeared on 23 August 1971, and cited “legal problems”. Both EMI/Capitol and Columbia/CBS, Bob Dylan’s label, believed they had a rightful claim to issue the album. In the end Columbia was given tape distribution rights in North America, and record and tape distribution in the rest of the world.

EMI/Capitol also insisted on monetary compensation for the production costs of the box set, to the tune of $500,000. EMI chairman Bhaskar Menon and Harrison were both intransigent, with Harrison adamant that the label should lower its fees, and the label refusing to capitulate.

Harrison was also in talks with Patrick Jenkin at the British Treasury, in an fruitless attempt to have the government waive its VAT, which would have also helped make the triple album more affordable for purchasers.

A further complication was the low quality of the filmed footage of the concerts. Harrison spent much of September 1971 in New York working with editors to create a passable product. The multiple delays meant that audio bootlegs of The Concert For Bangladesh started circulating, leading to press adverts and posters in record stores stating: “Save a starving child! Don’t buy a bootleg!”

I spent a month with Phil Spector, produced the record in a studio until like seven in the morning, making this record, getting the package together, and we get that ready and we give it to the record company and then they say, ‘Now, how much are we going to make?’ ‘No, you don’t make anything, we make it. It’s for the refugees.’ They don’t want to do it for cost – we want them to do it for what it costs to manufacture it.

Actually, we’ve paid the costs so far. Our company has paid for all the boxes, millions of boxes and things, books that go with it, and then we give it to them on a plate, and they want more money, and it’s really not on…

Apple, that’s our company, we’ve paid, so far, all the costs to make the record, to make the box, make the package, all the expense involved in the show, and then Capitol, who Apple has a contract with to distribute, they just have a distribution deal. So we’re giving it to them saying, ‘Aren’t you lucky? You’re the company who’s going to distribute this wonderful record.’ They say, ‘No, no, we want this money. That’s not enough. We want that…’ Because they lost so much bread, you know, they just really lost and they kicked all the staff out, fired everybody, brought in a new guy who was working in England. He was really from India, good old Bhaskar Menon. And Bhaskar happens to be from India and I thought really, at first, he was really into the whole idea of it. But you knew, it’s just been held up. This record should have been out a month ago, really, but now we still haven’t solved the problem… We’ll get it out. I’ll just put it out, you know, put it out with CBS and let… you know, Bhaskar will have to sue me.

George Harrison
The Dick Cavett Show, 23 November 1971

EMI/Capitol eventually backed down and agreed to Harrison’s terms. Only Columbia profited from the live album, making 25 cents from each copy sold. No royalties were paid to the performers. Harrison’s distaste for EMI’s actions, meanwhile, became a key factor in his decision to sign with A&M in January 1976.

This was far from the end of Harrison’s financial negotiations, however. In February 1972, several weeks after The Concert For Bangladesh went on sale, New York magazine published a report claiming that $1.14 per album was unaccounted for. It suggested that Allen Klein had been responsible for the delay in the album’s release, by hiking the price in order to maximise his own share.

In America, the IRS held the view that because Unicef had not been involved in the staging of the Madison Square Garden shows, the revenues were liable for tax. This led to years of wrangling, but the tax officials ultimately refused to budge. In 1978 Harrison estimated the IRS share at $8-10 million.

The concerts did, however, raise £243,418.50, a sum paid to Unicef 11 days after the event. The album was a commercial success despite its high price, and by 2011 the project had raised over $17 million for the charity.

With Klein, well he didn’t structure the affairs properly; he went to Unicef after the event rather than before it and since then we have had lawyers trying to solve it with the American tax people who still (although they have now almost got it covered) are saying: ‘Oh well, we think you might have been putting it on for your own profit’. The money has been held up in an escrow account for years and years – 8,000,000 to 10,000,000 dollars.

Anyway, the main result was that we were able to attract attention to events over there in Bangla Desh, because while we were setting up the concert the Americans were shipping arms to Pakistan. Thousands were dying every day but in the newspapers, coming after Biafra, it was just a few lines saying ‘oh yeah it’s still going on’.

So our thing was, we attracted a lot of publicity, turned it round and even now I still meet waiters in Bengali restaurants who say: ‘Oh, you Mr Harrison. When we were in the jungle fighting it was great to know somebody out there was thinking of us’.

It did have a good effect; it was a necessary morale booster for the Bengalis and it shone a light on some of the Pakistani Hitlers. The bad jazz that a cat blows wails long after he has cut out.

George Harrison
I Me Mine