[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. I was also on Feedback on SiriusXM’s VOLUME channel talking about the issue. – AC]
Call it the revenge of the boomers.
Music publishing is both the new gold rush and a speculative play involving a specific commodity — in this case, the continuing ability of great songs to reliably generate money.
Hold on. Back up. What is music publishing and why is it such a big deal?
It’s … complicated, but what we’re focused on here is the actual music created by an artist — the dots that you can put down on paper as sheet music. In fact, that’s where the term originated 150 years ago. You wrote a song, put it on paper, and then acquired a publisher who would then print out the song on sheet music.
It was then the publisher’s job to flog your song to music stores and performers as sheet music in exchange for a percentage of the overall sales. The artist and the publisher shared the exclusive copyright on the song (quite literally “the right to copy”) and you split the proceeds.
Any performer will tell you that the big money is owning the publishing because anytime the song is used — everything from radio airplay to public performance to someone covering it — you get paid. And you own that copyright for your entire life plus the following 50 years after you shuffle off this mortal coil (up to 95 years in other countries like the U.S.) before it slips into the public domain. That means anyone can use the song for free. Until such time, though, publishing generates money.
Over the last year or so, a number of companies have spent billions of dollars acquiring the publishing rights to the songs of dozens and dozens of artists. Bob Dylan got up to US$400 million for the music from his six-decade career. Three-fifths of Fleetwood Mac have cashed out in deals totaling over US$200 million. Even arch anti-corporatist Neil Young parted with 50 per cent of his life’s work for US$150 million.
And it’s not just heritage artists, either.