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Dylan Sells Songbook as Streaming Changes Music

Universal Music Publishing has acquired the rights to the entire catalogue of Bob Dylan songs

There was a time when Bob Dylan had a reputation for haggling over every minor clause when negotiating rights to one of his songs. He will do so no more! That task will now be performed by the Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG).

On Monday, December 7, Universal, one of the biggest players in the global music industry, announced it had acquired the rights “to the entire catalogue” of Bob Dylan songs.

“This landmark agreement encompasses more than 600 copyrights spanning 60 years, from 1962’s cultural milestone “Blowin’ In The Wind” to this year’s epic “Murder Most Foul,” Universal announced in a statement.

The price was not disclosed, but industry experts have speculated it is in the range of $US300 million to a half-billion dollars.

Dylan topped the Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time in 2015 and “Like A Rolling Stone” was named by the magazine as the best song ever written. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the first songwriter to receive such a distinction.

Universal was gleeful in its announcement, for many have long considered Dylan’s songbook to be priceless!

“To represent the body of work of one of the greatest songwriters of all time – whose cultural importance can’t be overstated – is both a privilege and a responsibility,” said UMPG Chairman & CEO Jody Gerson.

Sir Lucian Grainge, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, added: “Bob Dylan is one of our culture’s most influential and groundbreaking artists. In the decades since he first burst into the public’s consciousness via New York City’s Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early 1960s, Bob Dylan has sold more than 125 million records around the world and amassed a singular body of work that includes some of the greatest and most popular songs the world has ever known.”

Music publishing is about the copyright for song-writing and composition, as distinct from those for a recording.

So despite the sale, Associated Press reports that Dylan does not lose total control over his own recordings of his material. And Universal is unlikely to risk doing something where Dylan would publicly object to how his work is being used.

This appears to be referenced in Jody Gerson’s statement: “We look forward to working with Bob and the team in ensuring his artistry continues to reach and inspire generations of fans, recording artists and songwriters around the world.”

What was also noted in the UMPG release is that Dylan’s songs “have been recorded more than 6,000 times by an array of artists representing dozens of countries, cultures and music genres.” And Universal will reap royalty rewards every time other musicians cover his material, either as recorded or live.

What the deal does not include is any unreleased material or songs Dylan has yet to write. So the 79-yerar-old Nobel Laureate is free to negotiate separate agreements with whoever for these.

But Universal, a division of the French media conglomerate Vivendi, now has 100 percent of the rights for all released Bob Dylan songs, including both the income he receives as a songwriter and his control of each song’s copyright. What Universal will collect as the publisher, is royalties and licensing fees anytime the work is sold, streamed, broadcast on radio or used in movies/television or a commercial.

And what really matters in the music business these days is streaming! By the end of this month there will be more than 450 million subscribers to paid music services including Apple, Amazon and Spotify. In the second quarter of this year, Spotify alone reported a 29% year-on-year increase in monthly users as revenues hit 1.8 billion Euros. In 2019, publishers in the United States collected $3.7 billion, according to the National Music Publishers’ Association.

“Streaming has changed the landscape, from a licensing and royalty perspective. It’s the wild, wild West in terms of syndicated music and the ability to monetize that,” Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities told The Washington Post. “Even though there’s eye-popping price tags, if you look at the returns in five, 10, or 20 years, these are viewed as very good investments.”

As a result, new publishing and management companies appear to be lining up to benefit from the steady and growing income generated by music rights.

The Dylan deal comes a week after Fleetwood Mac star Stevie Nicks sold an 80% stake in her music to Primary Wave for a reported $100 million. Last month, management company Scooter Braun sold the rights to Taylor Swift’s first six albums to private equity firm Shamrock for $300m. And the relatively-new British company Hipgnosis Songs Fund recently disclosed that it had spent about $670 million from March to September acquiring rights in more than 44,000 songs by big-name artists.

And on Monday veteran musician David Crosby tweeted he is also selling his catalogue, adding that streaming has cut off record sales as a source of income. “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.”

But none of these artists is in the same league as Dylan. His songs reshaped modern music and will long outlive him – something not lost on music giants like Universal.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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