Nathaniel Adams Coles was 15 when he left Wendell Phillips Academy in Chicago to pursue a career in music. Three years later, in 1937, he managed to sell his first song, a catchy piece called “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, for fifty dollars. Coles died of cancer in 1965, but the other day his daughters completed the sale of his music catalog to Iconic Artists Group for an estimated sum of millions.
Although Nat King Cole, as he was known professionally, had uncommon musical success – with more than 150 singles on the Billboard charts – his posthumous good fortune is surprisingly routine. Dozens of artists and their estates are selling catalogs in what has become an unprecedented stampede.
Six days earlier, Hipgnosis Song Management had announced the acquisition of 278 songs by Leonard Cohen, who died in 2016, including “Hallelujah”, the moving pop hymn that has been covered more than 300 times. The previous week, Neil Diamond sold his catalog containing “Sweet Caroline”, “Song Sung Blue” and other hits to Universal Music Publishing Group. The terms of these mega-deals have not been reported, but a few recent deals have been eye-opening.
In December, Sony Music paid $500 million for Bruce Springstein’s catalog (“Born in the USA”, “Born to Run”). The sale topped the $400 million paid by Universal for Bob Dylan’s library (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Times They Are A-Changin'”). Trade publication Music Business Worldwide estimated that more than $5 billion changed hands through music rights acquisitions last year.
Such deals are a boon for rightsholders, but are they good business for media companies? Billboard estimates that Springstein’s catalog brings in around $15 million a year, which makes the price paid by Sony a multiple of 33. Obviously, prices are determined, at least in part, by competition, ego and nostalgia.
In February, Universal paid Sting (“Roxanne,” “Every Breath You Take”) approximately $300 million for his personal catalog as well as music from rock band The Police. Sony bought the work of dozens of artists, including Paul Simon (“The Sound of Silence”, “The Boxer”), who received $250 million.
One of the earliest music speculators was Paul McCartney. When the Beatles lost control of their publishing house Northern Songs in 1969, McCartney set out to acquire other catalogs, including the music of Buddy Holly (“That’ll Be the Day”, “Peggy Sue”) , which he purchased in 1976.
Nine years later, McCartney’s own music was swept aside by Michael Jackson who purchased the Beatles catalog for $47.5 million. In 2013, these assets were included in a sale by Jackson’s estate to Sony/ATV for $750 million. McCartney, meanwhile, has pursued copyright claims relating to his material. In 2017, he struck a deal with Sony/ATV and bought the rights to the Beatles catalog, which is now estimated to be worth $1 billion.
In the 1990s, as the internet began to disrupt the music royalties that flowed fairly regularly from airplay on radio stations, David Bowie (“Starman”, “Let’s Dance”) made the unusual decision to work with a company of Wall Street to create what were known as Bowie bonds. Investors were guaranteed a 7.9% return on the catalog, while Bowie himself received a payment of $55 million – for the rights he took over 10 years later.
Bowie died of cancer in 2016. In January of that year, his estate completed a catalog sale to Warner Chappell Music for $250 million. For heirs, as well as singers and songwriters who are nearing the end of their lives, these sales offer a huge one-time payment, while eliminating the need to manage complex music portfolios.
While it lasts, it is, according to the title of a memorable Nat King Cole hit, “Too Marvelous for Words.”