Skip to main content

Trend or Tactic: Why are so many artists selling the rights to their music?

Why do we keep seeing 10 second news flashes telling us that musician X has just become £500 million richer? What do they mean they’ve sold the rights to their music? What’s changed, and why the sudden trend? 

Apparently and approximately: 

  • Bob Dylan: $300 million to Universal Publishing Group 
  • Stevie Nicks: $100 million to Primary Wave Music  
  • Neil Young: $150 million to Hipgnosis (for 50% of the rights) 
  • Bruce Springsteen: $550 million to Sony Music Group 
  • Genesis; $300 million to Concord Music Group 

It’s actually started to become so commonplace that the figures are almost to be expected. We’ve seen so many instances that we can have a 30-minute conversation in the pub about who we think got short changed (none of them).  

Then the question inevitably arises: why are these music legends opting to cash in on their creative legacies? They were rich before they cashed in, and still becoming richer, right?  

Firstly, we should look at the value proposition behind catalogue sales. By selling the rights for a one-off payment, there’s an immediate influx of cash available. With that comes financial security and liquidity, allowing musicians to invest in new projects, ventures, or simply enjoy the fruits of their labour. For veteran artists, selling their catalogue can be a strategic move to capitalise on their legacy, while maximising returns in a rapidly changing industry landscape. 

There’s also an argument that selling catalogue rights can offer artists greater control and flexibility over their careers. In an era where streaming dominates music consumption, owning one’s catalogue means holding significant bargaining power in negotiations with streaming platforms and record labels. By selling, artists can leverage the expertise and resources of these entities to navigate the complexities of digital distribution and licensing, ensuring their music reaches wider audiences and generates sustainable revenue streams. All of a sudden, their popularity increases, and their tours are more lucrative than ever before (they’ll often still have the right to perform the tracks in public and performing rights can never be sold or assigned). 

For artists nearing the end of their careers or thinking about their legacy, transferring ownership of their music can be a very sensible move to secure the financial well-being of their family. It also prevents the inevitable administration headache family members will suffer when trying to figure out the intricacies of the collection societies and following up unpaid royalties. 

On the other hand, selling catalogue rights can be a very complex, time consuming and arduous process – for the instructed lawyers and accountants in particular – so it does have its potential drawbacks. For some artists, selling the control over their creative output may feel like sacrificing a part of their identity or artistic integrity. The lack of control of how the tracks are used can risk unwanted commercial exploitation or mismanagement by the new owners of the catalogue. 

Overall, it’s multi-faceted. The decision might be driven by financial, strategic, and personal considerations. While it represents a significant shift in the traditional dynamics of the music industry, it also underscores the evolving nature of artistic ownership and the innovative ways in which musicians seek to navigate an ever-changing landscape.

If you or anyone you know needs advice or guidance with any matters relating to music, media, and entertainment law, please don’t hesitate to contact our Creative, Digital and Media team:  

Peter Pegasiou

Author Peter Pegasiou

More posts by Peter Pegasiou