Maybe half of a Neil Young is worth $150m. For fans for whom his songs have soundtracked their weddings or holidays, their heartbreaks and joys, I am sure that he is priceless. But $150m (£112m) is what investment firm Hipgnosis Songs Fund is estimated to have paid for 50% of the rights to his songs.
Many of us have used the last few months to have a clearout and music legends appear to be having a lucrative car boot sale of their own. Last month, Stevie Nicks sold 80% of her songwriting catalogue to Primary Wave, a deal valued at $100m, according to the Wall Street Journal. Bob Dylan, too, sold the rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal Music, for an undisclosed sum, rumoured to be in excess of $300m. It’s enough to make the art world look frugal.
Investments in music are currently seen as a safe bet. “The income from these songs is very predictable and very reliable and those are the same reasons why you invest in things like gold and oil,” Merck Mercuriadis, who founded Hipgnosis, told Complex last year, arguing that music is even better, as economic turmoil has little effect on the revenue from songs being “consumed”. This sort of language makes a sentimental old music fan like me instinctively wince; consumption conveys the image of scoffing it down like a snack.
I keep thinking about the enormous and still growing gulf between those at the top of the music business and those lower down, whether newer or less fantastically successful, for whom the dominant streaming model does not begin to provide an income. Last November, musicians such as Guy Garvey, Ed O’Brien and Nadine Shah told a Commons select committee on the economics of music streaming that even “successful” musicians were struggling to make ends meet, to pay bills, to pay the rent.
There is an illusion that there is no money in music, that we fans must buy merch to support artists we love, at the gigs for which we have bought tickets, because in the age of streaming, the art itself is practically worthless. I am not saying your workaday indie band is interchangeable with a Bob Dylan or a Stevie Nicks; of course the work of Neil Young is more valuable than this year’s new pop hit. There is money in music, but it is being distributed with wild unevenness. If new acts aren’t allowed to flourish, what will be left for investment firms to splash their millions on in 2041?
Gottmik: diversifying Drag Race
Having had an uncharacteristic few weeks off between the main series, offshoots, podcasts, conventions and international editions, RuPaul’s Drag Race fans were greeted with the return of the original US series on Netflix, and a near-simultaneous second UK run, coming soon to the BBC.
It appears to have caught up with the younger fans who grew up watching the show, but whose understanding of gender evolved more quickly than those making it. While RuPaul started out doing “genderfuck” drag, the show rarely featured transgender or non-binary contestants and at times the host seemed wary of the idea.
Now, though, there is Gottmik, a makeup artist by day, the first trans man to compete, who had a strong showing in the first episode. “I walked into this thing with an idea of what drag is and the kids have a different idea,” RuPaul told Stephen Colbert this week. “This season we have a trans man who is on our show who is competing with the other drag queens and this man is fantastic.”
Frankly, this makes for a better show and Drag Race is excellent lockdown viewing, a perfectly measured dose of bright, chaotic escapism.
Jodie Whittaker: a Doctor Who who made a real difference
According to reports in the Mirror, the forthcoming 13th season of Doctor Who might be the last for the 13th Doctor, amid speculation that Jodie Whittaker is leaving the role.
So far, the BBC has declined to comment, which, as I learned in a recent podcast about the CIA and cultural interference, could mean anything from “she’s definitely leaving” to “we’d like you to think she’s leaving” to “nobody was supposed to know she’s leaving, but we can’t lie about it so we’re not saying anything at all”.
It’s all still a rumour, then, but if Whittaker is on her way out of the Tardis, I will miss her. As a casual Doctor Who viewer, which is, perhaps, near-criminal to admit, but honestly, there is a lot of back catalogue to sift through, I have enjoyed her ebullient take on the Doctor immensely and I found the show to be accessible for the first time in many years.
Not everyone feels the same way. Many have criticised her time on the show by attacking the writing and arguing that Whittaker deserved better. Maybe I am easy to please but, for the most part, I found it sweet, fun and occasionally educational, though perhaps it says something that I remained a casual viewer rather than a new devotee.
Even so, I appreciate that her tenure buried the prospect of any nonsense culture-war twaddle about her being the first female Doctor almost as soon as she arrived on screen, in favour of bickering about tone instead.
• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist