“We’re in a hype cycle.”
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Getty Images
That’s the reported amount of money the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, commanded when he sold his recorded work and songwriting rights — or, to put it simply, the rights to his entire body of music — in a blockbuster deal last year. The sale was the largest ever for a musician’s catalogue, and many legacy artists have since followed suit: Nice fellas Bob Dylan, Sting, Neil Young, and Paul Simon have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars for their life’s work, as have tenured acts including Stevie Nicks and Red Hot Chili Peppers. It seems rarely a week goes by without a “Sells Catalogue” headline making the rounds, and with some deals going for undisclosed amounts, this doubles as a fun guessing game, too.
Yet somewhere between Tina Turner and Neil Diamond walking away victorious from the negotiating tables, Vulture had a bit of an existential crisis about what it means for musicians to sell their catalogues today. Are the prices overvalued? Undervalued? And what exactly is being bought by these corporations and record labels, anyway? George Howard, a strategic consultant and distinguished professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music, was nice enough to explain how this trend speaks to larger issues in the industry, how Dylan’s sale may be the biggest anomaly of them all, and the longterm effects these deals have on music. “Commoditizing art,” he puts it, “never works out that well over time.”
With these catalogue announcements, I’m seeing two terms that represent different things: songwriting rights and music rights. What’s the fundamental difference between them? Or rather, what exactly is being purchased with each?
In any song, there are two copyrights. One copyright attaches to the melody and the lyrics. If you don’t have a publisher as a songwriter and you are your own publisher, you exclusively control the melody and lyrics. So, for example, Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You”; a number of years later, Whitney Houston does a cover version of the song and releases it with the record company that represents her. The record company holds the copyright to what’…….