Bowie estate sells songwriting rights to Warner

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 11, 1983, British singer David Bowie during a press conference at the 36th Cannes Film Festival. – David Bowie’s estate has sold the publishing rights to his “entire body of work” to Warner Chappell Music, the company said January 3, 2022, the latest massive deal of the recent song rights purchasing boom. (Photo by RALPH GATTI / AFP)

Agence France-Presse

NEW YORK, United States (AFP) – David Bowie’s estate has sold the publishing rights to his “entire body of work” to Warner Chappell Music, the company said Monday, the latest massive deal in a roaring song rights purchasing boom.

Warner Chappell did not reveal financial terms of the agreement, but according to trade publications the price tag is estimated at upwards of $250 million.

Recent years have seen a series of blockbuster music rights acquisitions by corporations — including from superstars Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Tina Turner — a trend driven by the anticipated stability of streaming growth combined with low interest rates and dependable earning projections for time-tested hits.

The Bowie deal includes hundreds of songs spanning the glam rock pioneer’s six-decade career, including “Space Oddity,” “Changes,” “Life on Mars?” and “Heroes.”

“All of us at Warner Chappell are immensely proud that the David Bowie estate has chosen us to be the caretakers of one of the most groundbreaking, influential, and enduring catalogs in music history,” said Guy Moot, head of WCM, in a statement.

“These are not only extraordinary songs, but milestones that have changed the course of modern music forever.”

Warner now houses Bowie’s work as a songwriter as well as a recording artist.

The owners of a song’s publishing rights receive a cut in a number of scenarios, including radio play and streaming, album sales, and use in advertising and movies. Recording rights govern reproduction and distribution.

Warner Music Group has handled much of Bowie’s recorded catalog since 2013, last year adding his recordings from 2000 to 2016 to the fold.

The announcement comes days before Bowie’s birthday on January 8, when he would have turned 75, and the sixth anniversary of his death on January 10.

Lucrative asset class

Music catalogs have always changed hands but the current publishing sales frenzy has escalated rapidly, with financial markets increasingly drawn to lucrative music portfolios as an asset class.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 11, 2021, US musician Bruce Springsteen performs a song during a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, in New York. – Springsteen has sold his music rights to Sony in an estimated $500 million deal, US entertainment publication Billboard and the New York Times reported on December 15, 2021. The sale includes the singer’s recorded music catalog as well as his body of work as a songwriter — including classic hits such as “Born in the U.S.A.” — sources familiar with the deal told by both media outlets. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

Bruce Springsteen’s publishing and recorded music rights recently went to Sony for a staggering $500 million, with Bob Dylan also selling his full publishing catalog to Universal for hundreds of millions of dollars.

The past year has seen other major acquisitions including from Stevie Nicks, Paul Simon, Motley Crue, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shakira.

The flurry of sales comes amid a wider conversation over artists’ ownership of the work, amplified in large part by Taylor Swift, who has found resounding success as she makes good on her vow to re-record her first six albums so she can control their master recording rights.

Taylor Swift attends the “All Too Well” premiere at AMC Lincoln Square on November 12, 2021 in New York. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

“If I’m a successful artist right now, I’m looking to own everything I could possibly own so I could sell everything off at some later date,” music analyst Alan Cross told AFP, while also defending older artist’ rights to cash in on their own work.

Such sales are useful for estate planning and perhaps more lucrative in the long-term, Cross said: in the United States, making a lump-sum sale also means artists are taxed at the capital gains rate, which is much lower than the income tax they or their estates would pay on regular royalty checks.

‘Memories and feelings’

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 06: John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Jeff Jampol and Justin Kreutzmann speak with Scott Goldman at Reel To Reel: The Doors: Break On Thru A Celebration Of Ray Manzarek at the GRAMMY Museum on February 06, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Jeff Jampol, whose company manages legacy artists and their estates including the Doors and Janis Joplin, said the right moment to cash in is of course a gamble, as most catalogs “gain value over time.”

“It is cyclical — but if you’re in your 70s, or you’re making succession plans, do you want to wait for the next cycle?” he told AFP.

But could such sales alter how fans engage with the music of these artists?

Maybe temporarily, Jampol said, but “long term? I don’t think so.”

“Music encompasses and encapsulates memories and feelings,” he said. “And those things don’t change.”

The company that’s publicized a large share of the recent explosion in sales is Hipgnosis Songs Fund, a British investment and management company.

In its interim report released in September 2021, Hipgnosis said its rights vault has grown to 146 catalogues and 65,413 songs — a value the company places at $2.55 billion.

For Jampol, the concern that looms largest over the recent flurry of transactions is that hedge funds, pension funds, and private equity firms now own seminal art.

“What do they know about soul and poetry and art and what are they going to commit to from an artistic point of view?” he said.

“It’s not just numbers on pages,” Jampol continued. “It’s music that created very special feelings & emotions — and those shouldn’t always be for rent to the highest bidder.”