Bob Dylan is one of the most important and influential figures in music, full stop, period. But at 79 years of age, he’s decided to cash out.
Universal Music Group has purchased the publishing rights to the Nobel Prize winner’s entire catalogue, include the writer’s shares. We’re talking copyrights on more than 600 songs written over a period of 60 years. How much is the sale worth? Somewhere between US$250 million and US$400 million. UMG will now get 100% of the income that would have otherwise flowed to Dylan. (The deal doesn’t include any songs Dylan may write in the future.) All the reports I’ve read say that UMG negotiated directly with Dylan.
As I wrote earlier this year, there’s been a massive land rush for song catalogues. by companies with names like Hipgnosis, Primary Wave, Concord, and Round Hill. Everyone from Imagine Dragons (US$100 million) to Stevie Nicks (US$80 million) to Blondie (a lot) has sold the rights to their music in exchange for guaranteed up-front money. It’s now up to the purchaser to make their money back (plus a profit) by exploiting that music in the years ahead.
In the case of Dylan, his songs have already had a long life. “Blowin’ in the Wind.” “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” “The Times They Are a-Chagin’.” He’s sold 125 million records. There are also at least 6,000 covers out there, each one generating royalties.
This isn’t the first time Dylan has leveraged his songs. They were used as assets to back a bond sale.
We’re not done yet. There are plenty of heritage artists who would gladly take a windfall like this in the last years of their lives. It relieves all manner of financial pressures and obligations, especially in a year when billions in touring revenue were lost due to COVID-19. It’s also very good for estate planning.
I’d love to hear from copyright experts on whether or not these purchases can be used to extend copyright protection on these songs. Some are old enough that they’re close to moving into the public domain. That would mean they’d cease to generate royalties. You wouldn’t drop more than a quarter-billion dollars on a song catalogue if there was a risk you’d lose copyright control, right?
Here’s a theory. There is a sneaky way to protect copyright and that’s to release new masters. This is a big reason why so many heritage artists are releasing “remixed/remastered” editions of albums and box sets creating the same. By doing so, you’re creating new masters, thereby extending the life of the copyright. I’d expect we’re going to see a lot of those remasters coming from Universal Music.
You can bet that feelers have already been extended to The Who, The Eagles, the other people in Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen, and dozens and dozens of others. Stand by for more announcements like this.
What I find fascinating is how the acquirers intend to make their money back. What will this mean for all these classic songs? Will they end up in TV commercials? Will newer artists be encouraged to cover this material?