Let’s call it the boomers’ revenge.
Musikverlag is both the new gold rush and a speculative game with a particular commodity – in this case, the continued ability of great songs to reliably generate money.
Please wait. To back up. What is music publishing and why is it such a big deal?
It’s … complicated, but we’re going to focus here on the actual music created by an artist – the points that you can put on paper as sheet music. This is exactly where the term originated 150 years ago. You wrote a song, put it on paper, and then bought a publisher who then prints the song on sheet music.
It was then the editor’s job to beat your song as sheet music for a percentage of total sales to music stores and performers as sheet music. The artist and publisher shared the exclusive copyright (literally, “the right to copy”) the song, and you shared the proceeds.
Any artist will tell you big bucks is in the publishing industry because every time the song is used – from radio airplay to public performance to someone covering it – you get paid. And you own that copyright for your entire life and for the next 50 years after you’ve mixed up this mortal shell (up to 95 years in other countries like the US) before it goes into the public domain. That means anyone can use the song for free. However, until that point, publishing will generate money.
Over the past year, a number of companies have spent billions of dollars to acquire the release rights to the songs from dozens and dozen of artists. Bob Dylan received up to $ 400 million for the music over his six year career. Three fifths of Fleetwood Mac have paid out deals worth over $ 200 million. Even the anti-corporatist Neil Young parted ways with 50 percent of his life’s work for 150 million US dollars.
And it’s not just cultural artists either. The Killers parted with releasing everything they recorded through 2020. Shakira recently received a fat check on 145 of her songs. Imagine if Dragons sold their release for $ 100 million. OneRepublic songwriter Ryan Tedder, Beyonce, Tom DeLonge (ex-Blink-182), Skrillex, Chainsmokers, Ariana Grande, Kendrick Lamar and Justin Timberlake have sold some or all of their release catalogs.
Why do artists do this? They have their reasons. With license fees shrinking and COVID-19 blocking access to touring opportunities with big bucks, they decided they’d rather enjoy all of the future bucks now. It’s good for lifestyle and good for estate planning too.
But what are the buyers’ motives? Companies like Primary Wave, Concord, Round Hill, and others believe in the lasting and predictable ability of great music to generate profit. By releasing popular songs, they can “unlock” the value in them so they can make money for years to come. But what exactly does that mean? How do you do it?
Good question. What we do know is that they have to work very It is difficult to repay your investments so that you can eventually make a profit. It’s safe to say that they’ll have to fucking whip this music for years and decades to come.
Older songs will be popping up everywhere that can generate free cash flow. And it won’t just be TV shows, movie soundtracks, or commercials. Think TikTok, peloton workouts, hologram concerts, and opportunities yet to be invented.
Now consider this possible unintended consequence: will this new emphasis on older music adversely affect new music? As Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan points out, thousands of songs are released every year, but only a tiny fraction of them ever become a permanent hit. It is better to invest in established classics than to risk something in new music. If these companies stop buying and starting to edit this music in the market, could it become the dominant music in the culture, displacing emerging artists?
In the past, current artists only had to compete for attention with their contemporaries and colleagues. Now it is becoming increasingly clear that new acts have to fight against all the great songs of the last 60 years. We are already seeing allegations from classic artists releasing new music on streaming services.
Long-term concerns exist that overexposure will burn out the greatest music of the 20th century and at the same time choke the next generation of stars in the manger.
The music industry has a lot to blame for this. Since the turn of the century, the emphasis on artist development has dropped dramatically. The focus now is on individual songs, not albums or building long-term careers. New artists are not allowed to mature, enlarge or build fan bases over time. It’s often a song and you’re out. How do you build loyalty to an artist when the attention span is so short and fading? And how can a new artist ever build a career?
This publication buying up trend can’t get any crazier until Wall Street takes notice of it. While companies like Hipgnosis and Primary Wave are run by music industry veterans, Wall Street will inevitably see music as another commodity to be used by any means necessary. What’s the difference between futures in eagles songs and pork bellies? Who cares as long as they make money.
Maybe this is a thing from the COVID era. When things return to normal and new artists take to the streets again, their fate will turn. Or maybe not.
In the meantime, I hope you’re ready to hear from Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone more often in more places. Universal Music Publishing wants to be paid.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for News Gob.
Subscribe to Alan’s “A Running History of New Music” podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play