From Bob Dylan to Neil Young: why are major artists selling their music catalogues?

Investors are eyeing up publishing rights as intellectual and creative real estate

FILE - In this May 25, 2019, file photo, Neil Young performs at the BottleRock Napa Valley Music Festival at Napa Valley Expo in Napa, Calif. Young has become the latest artist to strike gold with his song catalog. The Hipgnosis Songs Fund, a British investment company, announced that it had acquired a 50 percent stake in Young's catalog of some 1,180 songs that include "Heart of Gold," "Rockin’ in the Free World" and "Cinnamon Girl." (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File)
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Popular music loves a trend.

After Bob Dylan shocked the entertainment industry in December by selling his 600-song catalogue to Universal Music for an estimated price of more than $300 million, a parade of seasoned artists have followed suit for rumoured eye-watering figures.

Other big names signing away all, or part, of their publishing rights include singer-songwriters Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham (for both solo and Fleetwood Mac songs), Neil Young, David Crosby, Rod Stewart and music producer Jimmy Iovine.

While the deals are coming in thick and fast, they are not exactly a new trend.

Major pop song acquisitions stem back decades, such as Michael Jackson acquiring The Beatles' catalogue for $47.5 million ($114 million today) in 1985 and US punk group The Offspring selling their work for $35 million in 2016.

That said, there does seem to be an urgency to this moment. So what is going on?

A new way of doing business

As president of the UAE's PopArabia, one of the region's biggest music publishing companies, Hussain "Spek" Yoosuf says all the wheeling and dealing is down to a mixture of good timing and sound business sense.

You need to look at it as form of intellectual real-estate. This is a field that is growing year on year and there are people who see it at it as a safer bet than the housing market

He dismisses the notion that the feverish pace of these deals are solely driven by artists responding to the financial hit caused by the pandemic.

Instead, what is happening now, says the Canadian, is the arrival of a new and exciting investment model and cashed-up investors want in.

Where before it was mostly major music companies purchasing songs' rights, a number of exciting start-ups are beginning to give them a run for their money.

For example, take UK company Hipgnosis Song Fund, which acquired the Iovine song catalogue alongside the likes of Enrique Iglesias, Mark Ronson, 50 Cent, Chrissie Hynde and Barry Manilow.

When launched in 2018 it had $807 million through an Initial Public Offering. The company is now reportedly valued at $1.7 billion and owns the rights to more than 58,000 songs

"You need to look at it as form of intellectual real-estate," Spek tells The National.

"This is a field that is growing year on year and there are people with large amounts of money to invest who see it as a safer bet than the housing market."

Cashing out when you are on top

But these are songs. You can’t touch, hold or even look at them. How can they be potentially worth more than property or gold?

"Because it is highly consistent,” Spek says. "Just listen to the radio, it is always going to play hit songs no matter what is happening in the world. So from an investor's perspective, you have something that is consistent and insulated from the adverse effects of the economic climates of the time.”

Major artists have also become aware of the potential gold mine in their possession.

With a sizeable number of the major deals signed by those with major and hefty catalogues, Spek views their decision to cash out as a way to begin a new phase of their lives.

"What you are seeing is older artists, who are perhaps past their commercial prime and getting to retirement age, wanting to do something new with that they built," he says. “This happens a lot in the business world and is comparable to an entrepreneur who turns 50 or 60 and then decides to sell their company.”

Will we ever see a big deal in the Middle East?

While Spek predicts this field will only grow in the future in major markets in the West, the potential of such a cash splash hitting the Arab world is uncertain.

The day where a big regional pop star, such as Egyptian pop king Amr Diab or Lebanese diva Nancy Ajram, inks such a deal remains a distant future.

This is down to the regional music industry still finding its feet when it comes to legislating copyright laws and the recent arrival of streaming services to the Arab world.

"Bob Dylan benefited from an existing music infrastructure in the US since he began his career in the 1960s. He was able to build his career, earning royalties every year," Spek says.

"It is fairly new in the Middle East to take copyright and publishing seriously and most streaming services only arrived here in 2018. So we still have some way to go where music publishing income here will become ubiquitous, but that is something we intend to change."