Song catalogs have become a major purchase over the past few years in the music industry. With the recent rise in popularity of early music, artist catalogs and entire catalogs from other companies have become an important and profitable asset among music publishers and labels. Buying the rights to an artist’s entire work is more popular than many realize. Industry leaders such as Universal Music Publishing and Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which have been securing the rights to other people’s music for years, have so far spent hundreds of millions of dollars on such acquisitions.
Investments in the pre-pandemic catalog
Concord Music Publishing [Cautious Clay, Jacob Collier, Denzel Curry] took a major part in catalog acquisitions in 2020 with a $100 million deal with Pulse Music Group [YEBBA, Ty Dolla $ign, James Blake].[i] This gave Concord the rights to administer Pulse’s catalog and all future signings under the label. Speaking about the purchase, Steve Salm, Concord’s Business Development Manager, said “Pulse is a company that Concord has always greatly admired, and this collaboration instantly makes Concord a leader in the publishing world. frontline pop, hip-hop and R&B.”[ii]
2021: the year of catalog peaks
According to Music Business Worldwide, catalog and music rights acquisitions represented a significant investment among labels and music publishers in 2021. After receiving confirmed awards from industry sources, they estimate that at least 5, 05 billion dollars have been spent.[iii] Catalog acquisitions provide lucrative revenue streams for companies that purchase these rights as they become responsible for the use of this music. This is particularly prevalent for publishing houses. The biggest investor this year was Primary Wave, but other companies like Reservoir Media Management and Round Hill were not far behind.
primary wave [Bob Marley, Smokey Robinson, Boston] spent hundreds of millions of dollars on catalog acquisitions and stakes in other companies. In the second half of 2021 alone, the company acquired the rights to music from artists including Prince, Bing Crosby and Teddy Pendergrass.[iv] With a claimed $1 billion in buying power at the company’s disposal, according to Larry Mestel, CEO of Primary Wave,[v] they wanted to put their pocket money to good use by investing in these catalogs. It was a very smart investment since these iconic artists and their music offer immense opportunities for Primary Wave’s personal gain.
Top Players in 2022 Acquisitions So Far
The first big acquisition of the year was David Bowie’s catalog of songs in January 2022, which Warner Chappell Music bought for $250 million.[vi] The purchase of the late musician’s catalog means the label now has the rights to hundreds of Bowie hits such as “Ziggy Stardust”, “Where Are We Now?” and “Let’s Dance”.
Universal Music Publishing (UMPG) is another major player in this music industry trend. On February 10, 2022, UMPG acquired the catalogs of Sting and The Police. This agreement was made to unite Sting’s publishing and recorded music rights under Universal Music Group (UMG)[vii]. “Together, UMPG and UMG will work with Sting to grow and expand his vast audience, reinforce the impact and indolence of his timeless works, and continue to support future musical releases.”[viii] Neil Diamond also sold his catalog to UMPG at the end of February. The transaction includes the rights to all recordings, masters and videos created by Diamond during his career, as well as 110 previously unreleased tracks and one previously unreleased album.[ix]
Hipgnosis Songs Fund
A company created with the aim of acquiring songs, Hipgnosis Songs Fund is the first of its kind. This is a British investment company whose aim is to build a diversified portfolio of groundbreaking artists’ catalogues.[x] Although based in the UK, Hipgnosis has a global reach with clients and offices in other countries including the US.
Investors are clamoring for shares of music in the Hipgnosis catalog so they can enjoy exposure by playing the songs they’ve acquired the rights to, regardless of who owns the rights to which catalogs. Shareholders include GIIN (Global Impact Investing Network) and SEDOL (Stock Exchange Daily Official List).[xi]
Hipgnosis’s song management list is relatively small but powerful. Artists and songwriters on their roster include The Red-Hot Chili Peppers, Mark Ronson, Neil Young, and Shakira.[xii] The advantage of the company with the rights to these catalogs is important in the music industry: the synchronization license (sync).
Sync Licensing Opportunities
One of the most popular sources of revenue in the music industry is synchronization, commonly referred to as sync(h), licensing. Music licensing allows music publishing companies to make money from the music in their catalogs by placing it in films, television and commercials.[xiii] Since live events were canceled due to the COVID pandemic, sync licensing has also helped artists generate revenue and stay afloat.
Hipgnosis plays a role in synchronization due to its scope. The company’s investment advisor creates timing opportunities for the roster with their relationships with notable broadcast networks, ad agencies, and television studios. These decisions are made after the investor has viewed the songs in their catalog that could generate a new collection of royalties from these sync placements, and having a diverse roster increases their chances of securing a placement.[xiv] One of their most recent highlights was in a trailer for the movie Gucci House. Hipgnosis’ representation comes from David Stewart, a songwriter on their roster.[xv] They have sync placements in commercials for other movies and product commercials.
In an interview with CNBC, Rebecca Valice, Head of Copyright and Licensing at PEN Music Group, said, “From a publisher’s perspective, it’s extremely valuable to get the rights to a certain catalog that we can offer for synchronization. A catalog can make its own pitch just because of its legendary success.[xvi] Over time, sync locations can recoup the money acquirers spent to purchase the catalogs.
The appeal of early music versus recent music
Contrary to popular belief, early music is becoming the primary focus of the music market. It is regaining popularity through TikTok, Metaverse, and other social media platforms offering music placements. MRC Data, a music analysis company, 70% of the US music market is represented by older songs. The COVID pandemic has given people a craving for nostalgia, and listening to music from decades past has helped many feel the nostalgia.[xvii]
This is promising for older artists who have sold their music and companies who have acquired their songs. However, the idea that older music is gaining popularity over newer music leaves a negative feeling for some. Music writer Ted Gioia loves old songs, but during his interview with WBUR, he says staying focused on older music isn’t good for the culture of the music industry. He now believes that every month of the year looks like December,[xviii] a reference to the Christmas classics that people hear coming out decades ago.
The fact that the Christmas “classics” are older songs is no coincidence. Most of the songs heard on the radio and in homes are over twenty years old, but they receive more plays than the most recent ones. Like catalog acquisitions of decade-old music, a big reason older Christmas music is more popular is the sense of nostalgia associated with the holiday season. In an interview with Wired UK, Alexandra Lamont, lecturer in music psychology at Keele University, said “Christmas pop songs are all about nostalgia – think ‘White Christmas’, which is the best-selling of all time. All the lyrics are about nostalgia and a throwback to Christmases past.[xix]
Statista also conducted a study last year based on Spotify’s most streamed Christmas songs around the world. With three exceptions, all of the top songs in the million-stream metric are at least twenty years old. This provides yet another example of the popularity of older music surpassing newer music.
There is no doubt that catalog acquisitions represent a significant opportunity for artists and the companies that purchase their works. Acquisition deals through record labels and music publishers, as well as other investment-based companies like Hipgnosis, which then provide sync opportunities, have been great ways for artists to earn money on their music. Despite mixed opinions about the growing popularity of older songs, this nostalgia-fueled trend is making catalog acquisitions a nascent and profitable market for publishing and record labels.
[i] Ingham 2020
[iii] Stassen 2022
[iv] Ingham, Primary Wave has over $1 billion to spend on music rights…and it’s wasting no time 2021
[vi] Ingham and Warner Buy David Bowie’s Song Catalog for $250M+ 2022
[vii] Universal Music Publishing Group Acquires Sting’s 2022 Song Catalog
[ix] Yosman 2022
[x] Hipgnosis Songs Fund nd
[xi] Information to shareholders n/a
[xii] nd song management
[xiii] Market line 2022
[xiv] Our purpose and business model nd
[xv] Synch Highlights nd
[xvi] Blackinton 2021
[xvii] O’Dowd and Hagan 2022
[xx] Zandt 2021