The Great Music Catalog Sell Off

In what came as a surprise to many, the final months of 2020 saw an unprecedented number of high-profile artists selling off their song catalogs to the highest bidders.

The most prominent among them was Bob Dylan, who turned over the rights to his more than 600 songs for the handsome sum of $400 million dollars. Other artists have also been taking this “everything must go” approach, including Neil Young, Shakira, Patti Smith, Dire Straits, and key members of Fleetwood Mac. Most recently, the Beach Boys sold a controlling interest in the group’s intellectual property, including their sound recordings, the Beach Boys brand, certain musical compositions, and memorabilia to Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group.

On Sale Now!

Nor is the trend limited to vintage artists. The Killers and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder have also gotten in on the act. And in January, the British band Massive Attack, who alongside Tricky and Portishead pioneered the trip-hop genre, sold the rights to their own multi-platinum catalog.

So who is buying up all this music? There aren’t many companies that can easily get their hands on $400 million, so it’s not surprising that Dylan went with the Universal Music Group which, in 2019 alone, raked in more than $8 billion.

But it’s the other deals that have been sending shock waves throughout the music industry. In a David vs. Goliath move that would warm the hearts of young GameStop investors, the catalogs of Neil Young, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, Patti Smith and Fleetwood Mac were all discreetly acquired by the upstart operations Hipgnosis Songs Fund and Primary Wave.

On Sale Now!

So why is all this happening now, you may wonder. Well, as Benjamin Franklin observed, nothing in this world is certain, except for death and taxes, both of which turn out to be major factors in a lot of these cases.

For musicians who reside in the U.S., the tax issue is of particular concern. In keeping with his whole “make the rich pay their fair share” promise, Joe Biden is aiming to increase capital gains taxes on the sale of assets above $1 million from 20 percent to 37 percent. So in Dylan’s case, the Universal deal gives him an extra $65 million to spend on whatever it is that Dylan spends money on.

And then there’s mortality. Artists who’ve been making music for decades have learned, often through trial and error, who can and cannot be trusted to act in their best interest. So just as pre-planned funerals can ease the burden for survivors, these deals can protect descendants who are often seen as easy marks by music industry predators.

Of course, those kinds of problems were inconceivable during rock ’n’ roll’s early years, when labels like Chess Records would buy their artists Cadillacs, or pay some of their bills, in lieu of royalties. It would take musicians like Lloyd Price, who started his own label in 1956, to stand up on behalf of artists’ rights. “People thought I didn’t know what I was talking about, that I was bucking the record industry,” Price told the “Colorado Springs Independent” in a 2015 interview. “But you could sell hit records from a phone booth. You just needed a phone where the distributor could call you back.”

A lot has changed since then, but at least the artists selling their catalogs are getting what presumably is a fair price for their years of work and creativity – something that hasn’t always been the case with royalties over the history of the music industry.

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