Publishing Deals Make Money For Artists

Bob Dylan AP photo

It’s a lesson about finances.

If you are an artist, an author or a musician then take note (pun intended).

If you want to make money from your artistic endeavors, then pay attention to any contract you may sign, and negotiate to keep control of your copyright(s).

Or you may not receive any money.

Bob Dylan, a Nobel Prize-winning songwriter, and arguably the greatest American songwriters, has sold publishing rights of his huge catalog of more than 600 songs to Universal Music Publishing Group.

The price?

According to David Bauder of The Associated Press, the price was not disclosed, but experts have suggested the catalog will fetch between $300 million to half-billion dollars.

Dylan was smart to negotiate this deal and others before this one to keep his publishing rights.

The publishing rights are what make musicians their money.

It’s the same for authors. If an author doesn’t retain his book’s copyright, then the writer doesn’t have any say over how the book is used or sold. Some contracts call for the artist to give up his copyright which is like giving up ownership of his work. It means that whoever owns the publishing rights or copyright means he controls how the material will be used in the future. Ben Sisario of The New York Times wrote, “Music publishing is the side of the business that deals in the copyrights for songwriting and composition — the lyrics and melodies of songs, in their most fundamental form — which are distinct from those for a recording. Publishers and writers collect royalties and licensing fees any time their work is sold, streamed, broadcast on the radio or used in a movie or commercial.”

On Aug. 14, 1985, according to history.com, Michael Jackson outbid Paul McCartney, and purchased the publishing rights to the vast majority of The Beatles’ catalog for $47 million. The website revealed that during Jackson’s and McCartney’s collaboration on McCartney’s song “Say Say Say” is when McCartney was to have given Jackson advice to invest his wealth in music publishing.

Bauder said McCartney reacquired The Beatles songs in 2017.

So it’s crucial that artists retain their copyrights or publishing rights. Bauder added 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 only songwriter to receive the award. Until Dylan and the Beatles, it was considered unusual for popular music songwriters to perform their own work.

Dylan’s songs have been recorded more than 6,000 times, by artists from dozens of countries, cultures and music genres. Notable releases include the Byrds’ chart-topping version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Jimi Hendrix’s reworking of “All Along the Watchtower,” and Adele’s cover of “Make You Feel My Love,” Bauder added.

New publishing and talent management companies like Primary Wave and Merck Mercuriadis’ Hipgnosis Song Fund have spring up to compete with long-time players in the industry like Universal and Sony. Stevie Nicks recently sold an 80% stake in her music to Primary Wave for a reported $100 million, Bauder said.

Other musicians may follow suit, Bauder noted. David Crosby, formerly of Crosby, Stills and Nash, said he is selling his catalog because he can’t work because of the pandemic and that streaming has cut off record sales as a source of income.

So, before you sign a contract, have a lawyer review it. The lawyer may require a fee, but in the long run, the lawyer may be helping you retain future earnings.


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