Over the past 20 years, the Who's music has been used to sell sports cars, allergy medicine and three incarnations of CSI. But that was just the beginning. On January 24th, Pete Townshend announced he was selling all of the publishing rights to his vast catalog of songs to the Spirit Music Group – a boutique firm that controls some or all of the rights to songs by acts from the Grateful Dead to Lou Reed – which now plans to place the Who's music even more aggressively in movies, TV and other media. "It's the biggest deal we've made so far," says Spirit president Mark Fried. "We're looking at his entire body of work."
The company, which spent three years crafting the Townshend deal, has a grand vision for his catalog. Of the roughly 400 songs that Townshend has written, a mere seven tracks – hits like 1971's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and 1978's "Who Are You" – currently attract about 96 percent of the Who's TV and film licensing. "It's criminal," says Fried, who hopes to place more obscure cuts like the 1968 B side "Call Me Lightning" soon. Fried also dreams of a new Broadway run for 1992's Tommy musical, a theatrical production of the 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia on London's West End – or even building a new custom theater space to present the Who's music. "Perhaps the show will be based on Lifehouse," Fried says of Townshend's unfinished 1971 rock opera, "or the totality of the Who repertoire, giving viewers a fully sensory experience."
Publishing rights – which generate royalty payments for the songwriter every time a tune is played, performed or otherwise licensed – are an increasingly important revenue source in the struggling music business. "If you have an evergreen song, you don't have to do any real work," says industry lawyer Josh Grier, who has worked on similar deals for the B-52s and Fountains of Wayne. "They just keep on making money."
While neither side will disclose what Spirit spent on Townshend's publishing, industry insiders estimate the price was in the tens of millions at least, possibly topping $100 million. Townshend, who will remain a consultant to Spirit's use of his catalog (but has no formal veto power), plans to use the windfall to fund new work – potentially including his long-gestating rock opera Floss – instead of relying on tour revenue. "To some degree, this deal might allow Pete to be freed from this massive brand called the Who," says Carrie Cooke, Townshend's director of special projects. "Other projects, like his acoustic 'In the Attic' concert series or his solo albums, were always seen as extracurricular – now he can focus more on them. This deal will let him take his creative muse wherever he sees fit."
But the Who have at least one more big project in the works: A Quadrophenia tour is tentatively slated to kick off in November. And on October 8th, Townshend's long-awaited memoir, reportedly titled Who He?, will hit shelves. "With all respect to Keith Richards, Pete is writing a very different kind of book," says Fried. "Pete is writing every word himself. He wants to share as much truth as possible, so it's going to be long and intense."
This story is from the March 1st, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.