During the COVID-19 crisis, at the age of 70+, at the peak of a career from where perhaps the only way is down – what is the lesson to be learned from the choice made by music legends such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks to sell their music rights at precisely this time?
“Only love can break your heart”, Neil Young once said. It’s hard to explain the feeling, but your heart breaks a little when you discover that Young, a popular, highly esteemed musician, a symbol of quality, sold fifty percent of the publishing rights to (and consequently, control over) his entire song catalog to the UK investment fund, Hipgnosis, which has found a way to make money out of music without making any music. 1,180 of Young’s songs are to become a “commodity” in which investors will decide if they want a stake. The “exit” will earn Young 150 million dollars.
He isn’t the only one. Young, 75, is now following in the footsteps of Bob Dylan, 79, Stevie Nicks (musician and Fleetwood Mac soloist), 72, and David Crosby, 79, Young’s partner in the legendary band (with Stills and Nash).
Why is it sad?
It would be more fitting to ask why it is happy. This is a legendary group of people, and it is an honor for each of them to belong to it. A group of people who are nearing their 80s. Their talent has been validated and has made fans happy for decades. No one would dare to accuse any of them of compromising their art for money (because they didn’t), and the sale of rights now will not hurt their career path. What’s theirs is theirs. They know what’s good for them and for their families, who will be spared having to deal with tiresome, complex issues like handling intellectual property. Good for them!
So, back to the sad part – they wouldn’t have done this were it not for their career and creative days being almost completely behind them. It is only at this point that they are ready to let go, to sell their products to the highest bidder and to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Moreover, it seems that COVID-19 played a part in their considerations, which is definitely sad. Musicians who were active in the seventies through the nineties benefited in real time from a stable income stream from the sale of albums and singles (which gradually dissipated over the past two decades), whereas today it is clear to the veterans of the industry – and to young artists as well – that most of the income is generated by concerts. For the 70+ almost 80 age group, the chances of going on stage again for a considerable time are not high. A sad reason, and one that reminded them that this is the time to deal with money, likes stones that were sure they would be rolling forever, and rolled on to writing their wills. Another reason to be sad is that this change denies them significant freedom; for example, Neil Young was known for his fastidiousness when it came to commercial and political use of his works (he sued Trump for playing two of his songs at political rallies, remember?), and from now on, his values won’t come into play.
And what is most important is why it is smart. The growing use of streaming has provided the industry with a model that can be “quantified”, and therefore, in the opinion of many, there was never a better time to invest in songs. Popularity is measured – every person, and every product, has a price, which is likely to change.
It seems that the golden years are truly the best time for rock legends to turn the “Heart of Gold” that made them famous in their youth into gold. One may assume that their catalogs are at their peak value. Most of their young siblings, their baby boomer fans (born between 1946 and 1964) are still around, and they have influence and plenty of money. Some Generation X members share their enthusiasm, but Generation Y less so, while Gen Z will tend to ask, “Excuse me, who’s that?”. One more generation change, and who knows what will happen to the value of these songs.
Another consideration worth giving thought to, and take Bob Dylan as an example, is whether the mature artist is still personally connected to his earlier works. Maybe parting from the person you used to be is not that hard. It may even be a smart choice.
The opposite of smart is what happened in the case of Taylor Swift, who, in complex circumstances and at too young an age waived the rights to her recordings – even before she knew what she was worth and how to protect her title to herself. The affair caused her a great deal of suffering. So what’s the right age to start? Everyone will decide for him or herself, but the answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.