I want you to imagine something. You are at the latter end of a long-distinguished career as a world famous iconic musician, you have written and sold multitudes of seminal albums and performed in front of millions of fans over the years. The Covid-19 pandemic hits and ruins any hope of touring on a new album or once off concerts. Through all that what should one do? Cash in obviously, and cash in big!
The new trend of long-running musicians selling off their back catalogues, is in fact not a new trend, but nonetheless it is making a booming recurrence, with some of the most influential artists cashing in on their previous works. In the past few months, the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Shakira, and Bob Dylan have all sold their discographies for huge sums of money.
Though they are not just necessarily selling them to record labels, but also to private equity firms and Wall Street level investment companies. The highly sought-after music rights over these musicians’ catalogue, described by some investors as being more lucrative than buying oil or gold reserves, would give any who owned them full benefits from royalty money, advertisement use and streaming profits, all of which would normally go to the artists.
The underdogs that seem to be changing how the music industry functions, are the two companies Hipgnosis Songs Fund and Primary Wave, both have already claimed in the last two months, the music rights of the most quintessential artists.
Hipgnosis, which is traded on the London Stock Exchange, recently acquired nearly 50% of Neil Young's catalogue, amounting to around 1,180 songs spanning his entire career. The BBC reported that the deal was about 150 million dollars in worth and had just come after the company gained the rights over former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham’s back catalogue.
The CEO of Hipgnosis, Merck Mercuriadis, stated that ‘Young’s music has been a friend and a constant throughout his life’ and that his company wanted to make sure that his music would reach all corners of the earth. Though he did add in a different interview with the Rolling Stone, that the music business is more profitable than the oil industry.
That is also where Primary Wave comes in, who are partially financed by the world’s largest asset manager - BlackRock, who are known for heavily investing in crude energy industries like Oil and Gas and make a pretty penny from it. Primary Wave in 2018 attained parts of the publishing rights for reggae icon Bob Marley for 50 million Dollars and in 2019 gobbled up 50% of the estate of Whitney Houston and any pre 1964 Ray Charles material. Money truly talks multitudes.
Both companies have experienced an influx of swivel eyed investors who see music assets as stable enough to pour large sums of money into, thanks of course to all of us, being locked away due to the pandemic with nothing to do but constantly stream music. All of us now are an integral part of the music millionaire machine.
The music industry giants did not sit idly by while these young buck companies snapped up all the treasury at stake, and in what could be a debatable position, they might have reaped the highest prize, that undoubtedly being Bob Dylan.
Universal Music purchased Dylan’s entire discography of around 600 songs for 300 million US Dollars, one the largest music publishing deals in decades according to the New York Times. The 79-year-old Nobel Prize winning artist has probably impacted or made an emotional impression on millions, a century defining artist in every single regard.
The running joke with Dylan’s discography is that a record label like Universal could continuously put out similar bootleg editions of any of his albums and his fans would buy them, he is just that kind of artist, songwriter art-form royalty.
Universal Records parent company Vivendi, which is a multinational French media company, is planning on floating Universal on the US Stock Market along with the likes of Spotify, where they are likely to see large returns especially after an asset like Bob Dylan has been obtained.
It is slightly disheartening to see all these artists, who for their entire careers wrote songs about how sleazy the music business can be and not to sell out to the fat cats, will in the end have somewhat sold out.
Though please do not get me wrong, I’d be the first one in line to listen to a new unheard mono version remastered basement tape or hidden Neil Young acoustic set. These artists have families to take care of, and now more than ever due to the pandemic the income source from gigging has all dried up.
The selling of back catalogues is more of a story of the industry rather than the individuals, that at present time with the circumstances, business is booming.
In the words of a famous wall-street investor Charles Prince, ‘if the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance’ and certainly as long as this music model of money making goes on, business is certainly going to get up and dance.
The thing to remember from something like this is, there are thousands of young musicians deprived of their main source of income and most are not sitting on a lifelong worth of songs to sell off. So, support them with all you can, buy merchandise, their records and go to any of their live streams, because as much as the classics are great, they are not the future. Right now the future musicians need our support and help.