Bob Dylan sells entire publishing catalogue to Universal Music

Deal covers 600 songs including Blowin’ in the Wind and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Analysis: Bob Dylan’s freewheelin’ approach to business

Bob Dylan has sold his entire catalogue of 600 songs, including Blowin’ in the Wind and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, to Universal Music in the biggest music publishing deal in decades.

While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, the volume and popularity of the 79-year-old’s work is likely to mean it is one of the most lucrative music publishing sales ever struck, with the New York Times reporting on Monday that it was worth more than $300m (£225m).

Dylan, whose body of work over six decades made him the first songwriter to be awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 2016, has sold more than 125m records worldwide.

Universal, the world’s biggest music company and the home of stars including Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and the Beatles, described the deal as “the most significant music publishing agreement this century and one of the most important of all time”.

Bob Dylan on stage in 2010
Bob Dylan, ‘one of the very greatest practitioners of the art of songwriting’, on stage in 2010. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

“It’s no secret that that the art of songwriting is the fundamental key to all great music,” said Sir Lucian Grainge, the chief executive of Universal Music. “Nor is it a secret that Bob is one of the very greatest practitioners of that art.”

Artists and songwriters receive a royalty every time a song is played on the radio, streamed or used in public places such as department stores, as well as income from sales of albums, singles and licensing music for use in TV adverts and films.

Cashing in on catalogues is a booming business. The London-listed Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which gives investors the chance to make money from royalties generated by songs by artists from Beyoncé to Blondie, has spent £1.2bn buying 117 catalogues to date.

Last week it was revealed that Stevie Nicks, the Fleetwood Mac singer and solo artist, sold a majority stake in her publishing catalogue for $100m to the music publisher Primary Wave. In November, the publishing rights to Taylor Swift’s first six albums, the subject of a bitter row between the singer and owner Big Machine, were sold to a private equity group, Shamrock, for more than $300m. Other back-catalogue investments include Michael Jackson’s purchase of 250 Lennon-McCartney songs as part of a $47.5m deal in 1985.

Dylan’s songs remain hugely popular, having been recorded more than 6,000 times by dozens of artists, including Adele, Guns N’ Roses, Bob Marley, U2 and Stevie Wonder. Dylan has produced more than 50 albums and continues to tour, playing about 100 concerts a year.

Unlike most big-name artists, who are locked into deals giving up publishing rights early in their career, Dylan owned the rights to his own music, which was administered outside the US by Sony/ATV Publishing.

Jody Gerson, the chief executive of Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG), said: “To represent the body of work of one of the greatest songwriters of all time, whose cultural importance cannot be overstated, is both a privilege and a responsibility.”

Merck Mercuriadis, the founder of Hipgnosis and former manager of acts including Elton John, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses and Beyoncé, has described investing in music royalties as a better bet than gold or oil, as their evergreen nature makes for uninterrupted returns even when wider economic markets are struggling.

In the second quarter of this year, at the height of the global pandemic, Spotify reported a 29% year-on-year increase in monthly users as revenues hit €1.8bn (£1.6bn). The streaming revolution is proving to be a particular moneyspinner for owners of song rights to older hits. Since 2013, annual revenues made by plays of Bon Jovi’s 34-year-old hit Livin’ on a Prayer have increased by 153%.

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Following more than a decade of plummeting CD sales, the music industry is undergoing a revival. Last year global music sales grew for the fifth consecutive year, to $20.2bn, driven by a 23% growth in streaming, having hit a low of $14bn in 2013.

By the end of this year there will be more than 450 million subscribers to paid music services including Apple, Amazon and Spotify. The pandemic has hobbled many industries, including live music, but has not halted the growth in streaming.

In June, Warner Music, the world’s third largest largest music company and whose artists include Ed Sheeran, floated in the US, selling $1.9bn in shares and achieving a market value of more than $12bn. Its owner, Len Blavatnik, had paid just $3.3bn for the company in 2011 as the music business approached its nadir.

Last last year, Vivendi, which owns Universal Music, sold a 10% stake in the business for €3bn, valuing the company at €30bn. Vivendi is planning a stock market flotation of Universal Music in 2022.

Universal Music’s publishing arm has deals with stars including Taylor Swift, Elton John and his co-writer Bernie Taupin, Adele and the Bee Gees.

Major music publishing deals

Taylor Swift In November, Scooter Braun, famous for managing Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, sold the rights to Taylor Swift’s first six albums to private equity firm Shamrock for $300m. The Shake it Off singer is planning to re-record the master tracks of those albums to regain rights to the songs, having been at war with Braun since he acquired them by buying the record label Big Machine, which she was signed to, 18 months ago.

Stevie Nicks Last week, Stevie Nicks, the Fleetwood Mac singer and solo artist, sold a majority stake in her publishing catalogue for $100m to the music publishing and talent management company Primary Wave.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney In 1985, Michael Jackson paid $47.5m for ATV Music – whose 4,000-song catalogue included hundreds of Lennon-McCartney tracks including Hey Jude, Yesterday and Let it Be, as well as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones.

The deal caused a falling out between Jackson and McCartney, who had told the Thriller singer to get into music publishing rights ownership only to be outbid by him for his own catalogue. In 2016, Sony, which had acquired half of ATV from Jackson in the 1990s, bought the remainder of the business for $750m from the singer’s estate.

Barry Manilow and Blondie Manilow, the writer of more than 900 tunes including 1970s hits Mandy and Could it Be Magic?, and Blondie, whose 197-song catalogue includes Heart of Glass, are among dozens of artists who have sold the rights to their songs to London-listed Hipgnosis, which offers investors the chance to cash in on royalties from a stable of more than 10,000 songs.

Contributor

Mark Sweney media business correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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