“Hang on to your publishing.” When I was playing in rock bands around New York City in the 90s, during the brief gold rush that followed the success of Nirvana, that was the mantra of every manager, lawyer, and songwriter I ever encountered. There was, of course, the coveted publishing deal that let you quit your day job—a trade-off that saw friends in bands selling their songs and writing new ones for the latest would-be sensations. But there were other friends in other bands whose moderate alt-rock hits proved to be lifelong revenue sources that topped up their bank accounts with every radio play, licensing opportunity, and needle drop in a Hollywood movie. One guy I knew scored a mid-chart hit, and then quit his band, married a starlet, and effectively retired before turning 30. This was the power of owning your songs. Since you’re asking, I did hang on to my publishing. Not that anyone ever asked for it.
Lately the old wisdom has been turned upside down. In December, Bob Dylan sold his catalogue to Universal Music; the undisclosed price was conjectured to be more than $300 million. In January, Neil Young sold a 50 percent stake in his 1,180-song catalogue to the upstart Hipgnosis Songs Fund, an investor-driven outfit founded by Merck Mercuriadis, the former manager of Iron Maiden, Elton John, and Guns N’ Roses, for reportedly around $150 million. In February, the Beach Boys sold a controlling interest in their intellectual property, which includes master recordings, a chunk of publishing, and a brand that is practically the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of Coca-Cola, to Iconic Artists Group, a new company established by the industry panjandrum Irving Azoff, who has managed the Eagles, Steely Dan, and Jimmy Buffett. The price was not revealed, but the Beach Boys’ musical assets have been estimated to be worth as much as $200 million. And then, in March, came the sale of Paul Simon’s catalogue to Sony; the monetary terms—no doubt staggering—were not revealed.