Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and David Crosby are the latest artists selling the publishing rights to their songs for lucrative deals.
Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and David Crosby are the latest artists selling the publishing rights to their songs for lucrative deals.

Why rock stars are selling their publishing rights

Rock superstars are cashing in early on their massive nest eggs by selling off their musical catalogues to investment companies.

Bob Dylan is set to pocket $400 million by selling the publishing rights to his songs to Universal Music, who have called it "the most significant music publishing agreement this century and one of the most important of all time."

Stevie Nicks, who wrote Fleetwood Mac's classics Dreams, Rhiannon and Landslide, has just sold a majority stake in her publishing catalogue for $135 million to publishing company Primary Wave. 

Publishing rights are owned by the songwriter and their publisher - songs earn money when they are performed in public, played on TV or radio or covered by other artists.

Publishing deals are different to deals involving the master recordings of songs, which are generally owned by record labels as they usually paid for the studio time.

Prince famously changed his name to protest his record label owning the masters to his hit albums.

Bob Dylan is cashing in on his musical catalogues.
Bob Dylan is cashing in on his musical catalogues.

Taylor Swift has been the latest example of an artist getting caught out by signing a bad deal. This year her former label Big Machine sold the master recordings and publishing rights to her first six albums - containing her most lucrative hits Love Story, Shake It Off, Style, Blank Space, I Knew You Were Trouble and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together - to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande's manager (and Swift's nemesis) Scooter Braun for $400 million.

Braun has now onsold just the master rights to private equity company Shamrock for $400 million - he kept the publishing rights to her songs.

Swift, who wrote on social media Braun "would never even quote my team a price", has started re-recording her first six albums to diminish their value to their new owner.

London company Hipgnosis Songs Fund has spent more than $1.6 billion buying more than 100 catalogues of artists including Blondie, Barry Manilow, Chainsmokers, 10CC, Chrissie Hynde and Mark Ronson and writers behind hits such as Beyonce's Single Ladies and Rihanna's Umbrella, and allow investors to make money on royalties from the songs.


Music is seen as a safe and reliable investment which seems to weather the usual market fluctuations.

Dylan, 79, is incredibly prolific with 39 studio albums since 1962, plus dozens of live albums and compilations, while his songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Guns N'Roses and Adele.

Nicks, 72, recently saw Dreams return to the US Top 20 for the first time since it made No. 1 in 1977 after being used on a viral TikTok video.

Like Dylan, she had been a regular live performer until the pandemic curtailed gigs.




John Watson, who manages Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and Missy Higgins, said there was financial logic in heritage artists like Dylan and Nicks cashing in now.

"These artists are essentially taking 10-20 years of possible future royalties and depositing it all straight in their bank accounts now with no risk," Watson said. 

"Even if 'the bird in the hand' turns out to be worth less than the eventual 'two in the bush' many of these older artists would have to live into their 90s to receive all that money and they'll probably be able to enjoy it more over the next few years. 


"So while I have no idea what's driving Dylan I suspect that's probably part of the thinking. He and other artists making similar decisions may also have income tax and estate planning reasons for making a sale. It depends on the laws in different places of course but you typically have a lot more flexibility in determining how to bequeath cash to your heirs than you do if you leave everyone a mountain of complicated rights that they all then have to try and manage in your absence."

This week US rocker David Crosby said he is also planning to sell his back catalogue due to the pandemic and changes in how music is consumed.

"I can't work and streaming stole my record money," Crosby tweeted.

"I have a family and a mortgage and I have to take care of them so it's my only option. I'm sure the others feel the same."

While streaming sites like Spotify give minuscule royalties to most artists (depending on their deals), streaming has been a financial bonanza for record companies, who are making millions off the back catalogue of musicians on their roster with the need to manufacture expensive CDs now almost gone.



Originally published as Why rock stars are selling their publishing rights