Why legendary music artists are selling the rights to their songs
A group of music artists that includes legends like Whitney Houston, through her estate, and Bob Dylan have sold all or part of their song catalogs in recent years — a trend experts say has become more popular as artists seek to cash in on their copyrights and, in some cases, breathe new life into their past hits.
“Artists, creators, owners of the copyrights can slice and dice these catalogs in a million different ways,” Variety music editor Jem Aswad told ABC News. “Sometimes they’ll just sell the publishing. Sometimes they’ll just sell the recorded music rights.”
In 2021, Bruce Springsteen reportedly sold his catalog to Sony for more than $500 million. Others capitalizing on the trend include Neil Young and David Bowie and more modern artists like Justin Timberlake and John Legend. Even Justin Bieber, at just 28 years old, reportedly sold his catalog for a staggering $200 million.
“Music catalogs are a very complicated asset. The value changes all the time. It fluctuates,” Aswad said.
But for older artists, selling their catalogs can help with estate planning to take the burden off their heirs once they’re gone, Aswad said.
Then there are artists like Taylor Swift, who is famously re-recording her entire catalog to maintain the rights over her work after the recordings of her first six albums were sold without her consent.
“She’s sort of the rising tide lifts all boats because, yes, all of this was in her self-interest. But she has educated countless musicians and countless fans about the value of owning your own creative work,” Aswad said.
Larry Mestel, CEO of Primary Wave, one of the leading independent music publishers, said he recognizes that value, which is why his company rarely buys 100% of an artist’s catalog. The company owns a percentage of Houston’s catalogs, as well as Air Supply, Stevie Nicks, Prince, Bob Marley, James Brown, Def Leppard and Kurt Cobain, among many others.
Mestel said he founded the company in 2006 because a lot of legendary artists “were not being focused on by their major labels.”
WATCH: Whitney Houston’s family reflect on her new album, legacy
“We do not create, we do not market without an artist’s approval,” Mestel said.
Mestel said he often builds partnerships with the artists to build on their reputation or brand.
The Houston estate, helmed by Pat Houston, Whitney Houston’s sister-in-law and former manager, began working with Primary Wave in 2019.
“We’ve done a biographical film. We have a new gospel album. We have a Broadway show in development,” Mestel said.
“It has to feel right. And I would not do anything that I didn’t think she would be proud of,” Pat Houston said.
One of the first meetings with Houston’s estate and Primary Wave involved going through her old recordings, where they found a track called “Higher Love.” The result was a chart-topping song, remixed by Kygo, seven years after Houston’s death, re-introducing a new generation to her talent.
MORE: Taylor Swift announces 'Speak Now (Taylor's Version)'
Still, it can be a gamble for artists to sell their catalogs in the event they become even more valuable over time.
“If the air starts to come out of the catalog market, people will think, ‘OK, I sold at a really good time. Conversely, if things continue to heat up, they’ll be like, ‘Oh damn, I should have waited,’” Aswad said.
Rock duo Air Supply, which has been putting out anthemic love songs for almost 50 years, also has embraced the partnership with Primary Wave, collaborating on an AAA ad that featured their hit 1980 song “All Out of Love.”
“At first we said, ‘No, we don’t want to do that. Songwriters and recording artists should own their own catalog and their own songs. But we started to think about it and it started to make sense,” said guitarist Graham Russell.
“The songs will always be mine, because they’re my babies. But why not let them go out into the universe?”
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