Dylan Sells
Bob Dylan. Courtesy Photo.

Dylan Sells

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I don’t believe in selling your songs.

We are in a once in a lifetime era, where songs are valued higher than they ever have been before as a result of the recognition of the value of said songs, especially as companies have realized digital/internet provides more avenues of exploitation and more money than previously believed, and there are ever fewer independent catalogs available.

Credit Merck. He rounded up a ton of money and wants it all, he wants to buy your catalog outright, lock stock and barrel. Merck wasn’t the first to pay big bucks, but the first to insist he was taking it all. Sure, there’s a theoretical back end, but the odds of it paying are extremely low, that’s why Merck is paying such extremely high prices.

And then you’ve got Larry Mestel and Primary Wave. But he’s selling a different paradigm, he’s not only going to buy your catalog, he’s gonna work it. That’s part of the Stevie Nicks deal. In an era where traditional labels give up on marketing you if you don’t have hits, even though they own the tracks and are collecting streaming revenue, showing the power of ownership, you want to boost said revenue and participate. Mestel has product managers, Primary Wave is a marketing juggernaut, illustrating once again the changes the internet has wrought on the business. There are more opportunities, and innovative companies, but the media, and to a great degree the major labels, only focus on the Spotify Top 50 and big numbers and the public has a skewed vision of what the music business is all about.

Maybe if you have no heirs. Stevie Nicks has neither a spouse nor progeny. So she gets the value of her catalog instantly, now, while she is still alive. She’s not going to live another thirty years, she could live much less than that, so now she has the ability to utilize all that cash while she’s still breathing.

But what are you going to do with the cash?

Business is littered with people who got huge payouts and then blew the cash. All of it. It’s very easy to do. Hell, you can spend ten million in a day, if not more. Did you see that guy who started Pizza Hut blew through all the cash from its sale? That’s a common story. Whereas if they drip the money out on a regular basis, which is the essence of music publishing, you’ve got the equivalent of an insurance policy.

And odds are the younger generations are nowhere near as good with money as you were. Can you say “Edgar Bronfman, Jr?,” never mind his two sisters who supported Keith Raniere and NXIVM? Music publishing is essentially a trust for your heirs, to ensure that they don’t blow through everything you created overnight.

Meanwhile, selling is antithetical to all the territory taken by artists in the late sixties and seventies. Ownership of your publishing was a BREAKTHROUGH! Not having it cross-collateralized against recording revenue was a breakthrough. As for the value of copyrights… Peter Grant sold out Led Zeppelin’s record royalties and then the rights became a gold mine. Same deal with Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley. Doesn’t anybody look at history?


As for exploitation, you can always make a deal with a publisher to do this, usually at de minimis rates. And publishing royalties are historically more transparent than recording royalties, you should get paid, what you’ve earned or close to it.

In a perfect world, artists would own all their rights, and just license them. But too many acts are uninformed, never mind having brief careers, and the percentage partners see a gold mine today, which otherwise they may never get, i.e. Peter Grant and Colonel Tom Parker. But these publishing sales are moving the ball in the wrong direction.

Paul McCartney tries to recapture the rights to the Beatles songs and is undercut by Michael Jackson. The value of those songs keeps going up. And McCartney has put a huge chunk of his earnings into music publishing. Wouldn’t others wake up and follow his lead?

But we are not living in the sixties and seventies anymore. Music doesn’t represent the same thing, sure, music is everywhere, but it’s not the soul of the culture like it once was. As for the sale of today’s acts’ publishing in the future? So far, almost no one has created a catalog that compares to that of the titans of yore.

This is the marshmallow test. This is Wimpy and the burger. Can you resist today’s chunk for more riches tomorrow?

As for value… So far, historically, music publishing catalogs keep going up. Fewer are available and revenues for publishing keep ascending.

How many people can resist the cash dangled?

Dylan selling is disappointing.

P.S. Copyrights will expire when Disney is willing to let Mickey Mouse go into the public domain. A songwriter may have little political capital, but the Mouse House has plenty. It’s looking like copyright is forever.


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