Musicians are cashing in on their catalogs to the tune of millions. What's driving the trend? Which artists and songwriters have sold their rights — and what does it mean?
Of all the music-business trends ushered in by the pandemic year, the ascent of the back catalog may feel the most counterintuitive. Musicians are stuck at home without the ability to perform or tour, and yet the worth of their old music catalogs is sky-high. What gives? Here are the factors on all sides of the negotiating table that have led to the current catalog acquisition boom — and the high-profile artists, producers, and songwriters who’ve cashed in so far.
First, why are buyers buying?
The likes of Hipgnosis Songs Fund and Primary Wave are heavily disrupting the way the industry operates. Publishing rights usually stay with publishers and songwriters and recorded rights belong to labels and performers — but in the past few months alone, these two upstart companies have snapped up such rights related to artists including Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Shakira, John Lennon, and Dire Straits. By acquiring music rights, these companies can reap the money from royalties, licensing, brand deals, and other revenue streams that would have gone to the artist.
Hipgnosis is traded on the London Stock Exchange, in addition to getting cash from debt; Primary Wave is backed by institutional investors including BlackRock who place money into funds for the music company to spend. Both firms have benefitted from investors of all stripes noticing that the value of music assets are stable, or even growing, during a turbulent time for the markets (thanks to everyone consistently streaming and buying records). As Merck Mercuriadis, founder and CEO of Hipgnosis, put it: “If Donald Trump did something crazy, the price of gold and oil are affected whereas songs are not… [Songs] are always being consumed.”
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In addition, borrowing money is particularly cheap right now due to historically low interest rates (“rock bottom”), which some experts believe will be here to stay until 2023 due to the fragile economic landscape created by the pandemic.
And there’s another factor: The music industry’s traditional giants, the major music companies, aren’t going to let startups like Hipgnosis pinch their most prized assets without a fight. That’s why Universal Music Group paid somewhere near $400 million to fully acquire Bob Dylan’s song catalog at the close of 2020.
Why are artists and songwriters selling?
Covid-19 is a primary factor in the decision of some top artists to flog their catalogs. No touring means no touring income, and even for acts as established as David Crosby, that means alternative revenue sources must be found for bills to be paid. Here are some other reasons rich stalwarts of bygone counter-cultural movements — like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who don’t necessarily need the cash — might have offloaded their catalog rights:
1. Tax benefits
A beneficial tax window in the United States is currently closing fast. Joe Biden’s tax plans include altering U.S. capital gains tax so that it falls in line with income tax for any asset sale over $1 million. In layman’s terms, that will increase the tax rate on the sale of a lucrative asset from around 20% to around 37% for high-earners. Consider Bob Dylan, who sold his publishing catalog for $400 million: At 20% tax, he’s due to pay $80 million to the government; at 37%, he’d need to turn over $65 million extra.
There is another way taxes come into play: Why would an artist sell their rights if they can just wait for that same amount of money (say $400 million) to trickle in via royalty income, over a number of years or decades? Well — if they opt for that route and those royalties put them into the higher-earner category (and for someone like Bob Dylan, they almost certainly would), they would face a 37% tax bracket annually. Exchanging that for a one-time multimillion-dollar payout with 20% tax can be a lot more prudent.
2. Personal circumstances
Not to venture too far down the unedifying road of musical legends’ domestic concerns, but we do know the following: Bob Dylan is nearly 80 years old, has had six children, and will surely be thinking about his estate planning. A lump of $400 million is far easier to divvy up than a lifetime’s patchwork of publishing copyrights. Shakira, meanwhile, was embroiled in a tax-evasion case in Spain in the past two years, with the local government accusing her of owing more than $16 million in back-taxes. We can’t say if any of this informed these artists’ decision to sell their music, but it’s a helpful reminder that superstars have familial and administrative headaches, too.
3. Reading the market — and their own legacies
According to a recent Hipgnosis investor report, the company is paying artists and songwriters an average multiple of “14.76x historic annual income” — i.e. 14.76 years’ worth of predicted royalty profits — for their catalogs. The bigger the superstar, the bigger the multiple: Universal is believed to have paid Bob Dylan a multiple in excess of 25-times what his song catalog banks each year.
Taking this money upfront rids artists’ lives of several unpalatable uncertainties. First, since music streaming revenue growth is slowing down in major (“mature”) markets like the US and UK, how much bigger is the record industry going to get? Also, could a new technological menace blind-side everyone in the next 20 years, destroying the value of artist’s works in the same way Napster and Limewire did? Plus, with 40,000 new tracks being uploaded to Spotify each day, and fresh megahits (think “Old Town Road” and “Drivers License”) emerging every year, what happens to the evergreen “canon” of standard music classics? If a new classic goes in, does an older classic have to be booted out? How can today’s veteran singer/songwriters be certain they’re going to remain as resolutely popular in 2031, or 2041, as they are in 2021? Such concerns surely pass through the cerebrums of artists when chewing over the idea of taking a guaranteed payout rather than rolling the dice.
Who’s sold what to who, in chronological order:
In 2018, Merck Mercuriadis’s newly minted investment firm Hipgnosis Songs Fund made careful plays for rights from The D-ream and songwriter Poo Bear, the latter of which brought over rights from Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” and the English-language version of “Despacito.”
That same year, publisher and talent management company Primary Wave spent $50 million on parts of the publishing rights of Bob Marley.
In 2019, Hipgnosis focused on acquiring copyrights from hit songwriters like Johnta Austin (who’s written songs for Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey) andSean Garett(who has penned tracks for Beyoncé and Usher, Ciara, and Beyoncé). It also boughtTimbaland‘s catalog, which covered six albums from Missy Elliott and five albums from Justin Timberlake.
Throughout 2020, Hipgnosis kicked into high gear, snapping up various copyrights from the likes of Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora, Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge, the cofounders of Blondie,Mark Ronson, Jack Antonoff, Rick James, and Barry Manilowin quick succession.
Hipgnosis also bought out pieces of the publishing rights of 33,000 songs when it fully acquired Kobalt Music Copyrights in November; the deal included copyrights from hit writers including Skrillex, 50 Cent, Nelly, and Christina Perri.
Publishing and recording company Concord Music Group acquired publishing rights in the Imagine Dragons catalog, for a rumored nine-figure sum.
DJ Calvin Harris sold his publishing catalog to Vine Alternative Investments, and the catalog-acquisition industry locked eyes on yet another new player.
Taylor Swift‘s recorded music rights were sold to Shamrock Capital — albeit not by her, but by Scooter Braun, who bought Swift’s rights from her former label boss Scott Borchetta and sold them on without her approval.
In November, The Killers sold their publishing catalog to Eldridge, a Connecticut investment management company chaired by Todd Boehly.
In December, Stevie Nicks sold the majority of her publishing rights to Primary Wave, in a deal valued around $100 million.
Days after Nicks’ announcement, Bob Dylan made major waves when he cashed in to the tune of some $400 million selling his songwriting catalog to Universal Music Publishing Group. The deal also came with rights to The Band‘s first album, including hit track “The Weight,” thanks to a quirk in Dylan’s history with Robbie Robertson and co.
Neil Young fired a starting pistol into 2021 when he sold half of the worldwide copyright and income interests of his 1,180-song catalog to Mercuriadis’ Hipgnosis.
In the same breath of that first week of 2021, Hipgnosis also managed to snag Lindsey Buckingham‘s publishing rights as well as Jimmy Iovine‘s producer royalties and Shakira’s publishing rights.
Not to be outdone by his Fleetwood Mac bandmates, Mick Fleetwood cashed out on his recorded music rights in a sale to BMG this week. (Of note: Nicks’ and Buckingham’s deals covered publishing rights, while Fleetwood’s covers recorded music rights; the royalty streams and level of creative control are consequently going to be different for the different buyers.)
Also this week, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, who’s also written for artists including Adele and Beyoncé, handed over his catalog to KKR, an investment company with deep pockets. The deal here is particularly significant because of the buyer: It indicates a new phase of catalog acquisition coming up, as Wall Street giants begin to get (back) into the music investment game.
Artists are cementing their legacies by selling their catalogs for cash as music becomes more valuable in the streaming era. Investors and music publishers have been buying catalogs for as much as 30 times their average annual royalties.What does it mean when an artist sells their publishing rights? ›
In other cases, artists are only selling a certain part of their music rights, namely the publishing rights. This means that they remain owner of a part of the copyright, namely their so called writer's share.What artist sold the rights to their music? ›
Sony Music Entertainment has acquired the entire recorded music catalog of Bob Dylan. Dylan, 80, is one of many older musicians who have sold off rights to their catalogs in recent years, likely as part of estate planning. The famed musician sold his songwriting rights in 2020 to Universal Music.Do artists own the rights to their music? ›
The copyright of the Sound Recording is generally owned by the artist or record label that they are signed to. Whoever owns the master recordings will earn royalties when the song is played or reproduced (including radio, streaming, downloads).Why is everyone posting I don't own the rights to this music? ›
Why are people doing it? If you are not familiar; people who post a video or slide show or any content that uses music, are posting this phrase as a way to get out of copyright infringement. They believe, because they saw it on social media, that they are doing the right thing.How do famous artists sell their songs? ›
Pitch your song to a music publisher. Artists will get songs from a wide range of sources, including their record label, manager, producer, studio musicians, friends, loyal fans, and family. But to pitch your song to established artists, your best bet is to go through a music publisher.What does it mean when an artist sells their music? ›
Selling the catalog
The details of the sale were not released, but cases like this typically mean a significant payout for the seller (Bowie's estate) and substantial benefits for the buyer, including: Rights to the songs. The artist's royalty percentage. Merchandise revenue.
In terms of music or art, selling out is associated with attempts to tailor material to a mainstream or commercial audience. For example, a musician who alters their material to encompass a wider audience, and in turn generates greater revenue, may be labeled by fans who pre-date the change as a "sellout".What does 100% publishing rights mean? ›
The Writer's Share always belongs to you, the writer, and it can never be assigned or sold. If you never sign a music publishing deal of any kind, you will retain 100% of the music publishing revenue and ownership in your songs, meaning you will own the full pie.Who sold their music for the most? ›
Bruce Springsteen, performing here in November 2021, sold his catalog in December. Springsteen's deal with Sony Music in December was valued at a massive $550 million for both his recording and songwriting rights.
In general, the individual who writes or records an original song owns the copyright in the musical work or sound recording. So if only one person is involved in the writing and recording process, then that person owns the resulting copyrights.Who has sold the most music ever? ›
Top-selling artists worldwide as of 2022. Perhaps unsurprisingly, British rock band The Beatles are top of the list for best-selling artists worldwide, with 183 million units certified sales. Second is Garth Brooks with over 157 million units sales, followed by Elvis Presley with 139 million units.Do artists have control over their music? ›
3. 100% ownership of your music: Independent artists own the master rights to their music. They also have the freedom to negotiate music licensing and publishing deals. Moreover, they don't have to worry about confusing contracts, expensive lawyers, and signing over their music rights.Can an artist sell their copyright? ›
1 The copyright owner must enter into a written agreement, specifying the rights being transferred, to sell these exclusive rights. 2 Individual rights can also be licensed with either an oral or written agreement. Edward Hopper could grant the Walker Art Center a license to make its own prints of Nighthawks to sell.Why dont artists own their own music? ›
The traditional music industry often structures deals so that the label, not the artist, owns the masters of all songs created during that record deal. In exchange for signing over the master rights to their recordings, artists are often given an advance and a royalty percentage from all profits made off the music.Why do people post I don't own the rights to this music on social media? ›
A copyright protects an original work of authorship, whether in writing, video, or audio form. A person infringes on a copyright if the person uses the work without permission, even if they put out a notice that they don't own the music. To be clear, simply using the work is infringement; not pretending you created it.How long do you own the rights to your music? ›
If a song was copyrighted in or after 1978, the copyright is valid for the life of the author plus 70 years.
Only use content you've created yourself
By far the safest way to avoid copyright infringement and strikes is to only use your own content on YouTube. If you only use music and videos that you've created yourself, you won't have to worry about copyright claims as you'll be the copyright owner.
As we've mentioned earlier, in most markets, both songwriters and recording artists are typically paid royalties any time their music is played on the radio.What is the best way to sell your music? ›
- Your own website. As a first step in selling your music online, make a website for your music. ...
- Digital music stores. Streaming platforms are a popular way to consume music, but don't miss out on selling your music online through digital retailers. ...
- Bandcamp. ...
- SoundCloud. ...
- Streaming platforms.
Artists who remain musicians earn money from advances, merchandise, royalties, licensing fees and playing live music. Unless the artist remains independent, they pay a share of their money to others involved, such as managers, agents, promoters, PR teams and sound engineers.What do you call an artist who sells their work? ›
An art dealer is a person or company that buys and sells works of art, or acts as the intermediary between the buyers and sellers of art.What happens when a singer sells their music catalog? ›
An artist's or songwriter's stake in his or her composi- tions is typically referred to as “publishing” or “catalog.” When a catalog is sold, 100% of the songwriter's copyright interest — all income and rights in each song — is typically relinquished.How do independent artists sell their music? ›
- Earn streaming royalties through digital distribution. ...
- Make money playing gigs. ...
- Sell band merchandise online. ...
- Collaborate with brands and other musicians. ...
- Sell beats and samples. ...
- Teach music classes or sell lessons.
- Hone your voice. ...
- Tap your friends for market research. ...
- Use the tools you're comfortable with. ...
- Experiment with different types of posts. ...
- Make a website (if you haven't already) ...
- Keep a database of contacts. ...
- Be strategic with timing.
- Use a time-saving website builder. ...
- Curate that content. ...
- Ace your artist statement and about me page. ...
- Start blogging. ...
- Sell art online. ...
- Attend art exhibitions and fairs. ...
- Join artist organizations. ...
- Create a strategy for marketing art online.
- Social Media. ...
- Art Fairs. ...
- Artwork Archive. ...
- Custom Website. ...
- Newsletter. ...
- Retailers. ...
- Interior Designers. ...
- Licensing and Merchandising.
Publication right is a type of copyright granted to the publisher who first publishes a previously unpublished work after that work's original copyright has expired. It is in almost all respects the same as standard copyright, but excludes moral rights.How do artists make money from publishing? ›
There are several types of royalties and fees that a composition can earn. The most common three are performance royalties, mechanical royalties, and synchronization fees. Performance royalties are generated anytime a composition is played in public.Do you get paid if you get published? ›
A first-time author with a traditional publishing deal might expect an advance of $1,000-$10,000 and 5-18% royalties once they “earn out” their advance. Self-published authors do not receive advances, but their royalties can reach up to 70% for ebook editions.
Madonna is believed to have sold the most records among any female music artists in history, with 335 million records sold worldwide, recognized by the Guinness World Records and other major media outlets while the best-selling Latin artist of all time is Shakira with more than 80 million records sold.Who is the number one artist in the world? ›
Justin Bieber takes the top spot, with millions of followers across socials and billions of plays on streaming services. The most popular female artist currently goes to Taylor Swift, while BTS are unsurprisingly the most popular band. Any surprises here amongst the most popular artists in 2022?What is the biggest selling record ever? ›
Michael Jackson's Thriller, estimated to have sold 70 million copies worldwide, is the best-selling album. Jackson also currently has the highest number of albums on the list with five, Celine Dion has four, while the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Madonna and Whitney Houston each have three.Who protects music rights? ›
2. To protect a copyright, the owner should register. While the copyright is formed when you create, you need more to go to court to enforce your rights. In order to sue and claim damages, creators must own a copyright registered with the US Copyright Office.Can you sell the copyright of a song? ›
A musician can only sell or give away their copyright in a written document which they sign. If you want the copyright in a sound recording of your work made by someone else, and you didn't pay them to make the recording, you need to get them to sign a written document giving you the copyright.Why do artists want to own their masters? ›
Owning your masters gives you control over your music.
Owning them outright is a good investment on future royalties, and avoiding advances from labels in return for selling your masters means no huge debt is being racked up.
Herb Alpert is an American jazz musician, who became famous as the group notoriously known as Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. They're also often referred to as Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass or TJB. What is this? Alpert has racked up an impressive net worth of $850 million, making him the richest singer in the world.Who is the biggest band in the world? ›
- THE BEATLES. ~ 290 million record sales worldwide.
- EAGLES. ~ 160 million record sales worldwide.
- QUEEN. ~ 150 million record sales worldwide.
- LED ZEPPELIN. ~ 140 million record sales worldwide.
- PINK FLOYD. ~ 130 million record sales worldwide.
- AC/DC. ...
- MAROON 5. ...
1. Eminem. Eminem is the best-selling rapper in history. With over 200 million records sold, he is also the 6th best-selling solo music artist of all time.Can artists destroy their own work? ›
Artists have destroyed their work in every decade, every country, and every culture. Whether the impetus to destroy comes from creative expression, a need to erase past works, mental anguish, or all of the above, artists take ownership over their artwork both by creating it and taking it away.
Having a lawyer look over your contracts and paperwork is essential. A good entertainment lawyer has seen contracts time and time again and knows exactly what to look for (and more importantly, what shouldn't be there). Unless you have some legal training, save yourself the headache and get a lawyer you can trust.Can an artist release too much music? ›
Yes, it's possible for an artist to release too much music. Everything in life should be taken in moderation – water, exercise, sleep, even music.What artist sold their rights? ›
David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen among music stars whose back catalogs are sold David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and Shakira all recently sold off all or part of their back catalogs. Why forgo future royalties and creative control?Does an artist automatically own the copyright? ›
In other words, once you create a piece of art, write a story, or write down or record a musical composition, it is protected by copyright. You don't need to do anything else at all for your work to be protected. Your work just belongs to you after you make it.
Bruce Springsteen sold the publishing rights to his recorded music and songwriting for nearly $500 million, sources told Forbes, in December of last year. Paul Simon sold his catalog for a reported $250 million in March 2021.Do artists own the rights to their music? ›
The copyright of the Sound Recording is generally owned by the artist or record label that they are signed to. Whoever owns the master recordings will earn royalties when the song is played or reproduced (including radio, streaming, downloads).Why artists should own their music? ›
“If an artist owns their own rights,” says Hitchman, “they are in the best position to negotiate with a record company and obtain the best possible terms and controls.” Rising AWAL artist VERITE has been courted by numerous major labels, but the lack of control over her music and masters was glaring in every offer.Do famous artists listen to their own music? ›
In conclusion, yes, many musicians do listen to their own music. A lot do simply because they enjoy it, while many also do it to learn and get better. You shouldn't feel embarrassed listing to your own songs, if you want other people to listen to it, you should be able to as well.› pro › features › how-musi... ›
How Do Artists Make Money From Music? A Guide to Royalties
Why do so musicians sell their song rights?
Why do some musicians and singers not own their music?
Tax Planning. Lastly, in terms of the central question (Why did Bruce Springsteen sell his music rights?), outlets including Forbes have highlighted the tax-planning advantages associated with the transaction's timing.
How much money will I get? This depends on the resale price. The higher the sale price for the artwork, the lower the overall royalty rate. Your royalty is worked out according to a sliding scale from 4% to 0.25%.What does it mean when an artist sells their music catalog? ›
Selling the catalog
The details of the sale were not released, but cases like this typically mean a significant payout for the seller (Bowie's estate) and substantial benefits for the buyer, including: Rights to the songs. The artist's royalty percentage. Merchandise revenue.
Bruce Springsteen is a master of rock 'n' roll, but it appears the boss has sold his masters. Billboard reports that Springsteen sold the rights to his music for $500 million. It may be the biggest ever transaction of its kind. Melinda Newman broke this story for Billboard.Did Bruce Springsteen sell the rights to his music? ›
Sony Music Entertainment buys the Boss's entire corpus, including classics like “Born to Run,” for an estimated $550 million.What does it mean to buy the rights to a song? ›
If you want to use someone else's music in a film, video, presentation or other public context, you need to buy music rights to do so, if the music isn't currently in the public domain. This can be a complicated task because of the range of rights options and because most music has multiple parties with rights.How much did Bruce Springsteen sell his music rights to Sony? ›
Yet, for fans of Bruce Springsteen, the recent selling of his master recordings and music publishing rights to Sony for $500 million, according to Billboard, does strike a personal note.How are artists resale rights calculated? ›
How are resale royalties calculated? The artist's royalty depends on the resale price. The higher the sale price of the artwork, the lower the overall royalty rate. The royalty is worked out according to a sliding scale from 4% to 0.25%.Can an artist sell their copyright? ›
1 The copyright owner must enter into a written agreement, specifying the rights being transferred, to sell these exclusive rights. 2 Individual rights can also be licensed with either an oral or written agreement. Edward Hopper could grant the Walker Art Center a license to make its own prints of Nighthawks to sell.How much should an artist charge for copyright? ›
The percentage will vary, but it is usually 10 percent or less unless the licensee is selling posters or prints of the artwork. Sometimes royalties are calculated not according to net sales but according to the total number of products that are sold or manufactured. This is known as a per unit royalty.Why are celebrities selling their catalogs? ›
Perhaps the most intriguing reason musicians may sell their catalogs: they're privy to a special tax rate on self-created works. Musicians owe 20 percent in capital gains tax rates on their music. That includes album sales, streaming, licensing, and any other royalty income.
In terms of music or art, selling out is associated with attempts to tailor material to a mainstream or commercial audience. For example, a musician who alters their material to encompass a wider audience, and in turn generates greater revenue, may be labeled by fans who pre-date the change as a "sellout".What does selling your music mean? ›
What does it mean to pitch a song or sell your song to artists? Basically you, the songwriter are attempting to license your song to the artist. You are giving them the right to record your song and release it for a payment otherwise known as a royalty. The goal for most songwriters is to make a living from it.Who has sold 300 million records? ›
|Michael Jackson||United States||400 million|
|Elton John||United Kingdom||300 million 250 million|
|Queen||United Kingdom||300 million 250 million|
|Madonna||United States||300 million 250 million|
Perhaps unsurprisingly, British rock band The Beatles are top of the list for best-selling artists worldwide, with 183 million units certified sales. Second is Garth Brooks with over 157 million units sales, followed by Elvis Presley with 139 million units.Who has sold a billion records? ›
Over the course of Elvis' life, he achieved some of the highest accolades in music and film. It is estimated that more than one billion Elvis records have been sold worldwide, more than anyone in record industry history.