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Why so many big-name musical artists are selling their music catalogs

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

How do you put a price on the Boss? Well, Sony Music just did. It reportedly paid more than $500 million for Bruce Springsteen's entire back catalog. That means Bruce has joined Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Neil Young and other stars who've sold off substantial rights to their music.

NPR's Neda Ulaby explains why.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Back in May, Sony Music's president told investors he spent almost a billion and a half dollars just on music acquisitions since the beginning of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB STRINGER: Including rights from some of the most iconic artists and writers of all time, such as Paul Simon.

(SOUNDBITE PAUL SIMON SONG, "YOU CAN CALL ME AL")

ULABY: So Sony gets royalties instead of Paul Simon every time a song he wrote gets sold. There are differences between royalties for songwriting and for performing. And some of these deals are just for songwriting, plus the original recordings, called the masters.

But let's let a former music executive sum up the current market for all of them.

SERONA ELTON: It's scorching hot (laughter).

ULABY: Serona Elton used to work with the major labels. Now she teaches at the University of Miami. She compares being a musician with a catalog of hits to owning a house now someplace like Austin, Texas.

ELTON: All of a sudden, the market is crazy, and everybody's paying ridiculous sums of money - the kind of stuff you never thought you'd see. And people worry it's a bubble. Maybe it will stay that way. You know, maybe that's the right time to sell.

ULABY: But we're talking musicians who are not exactly starving artists - huge stars famously careful about creative control. Bruce Springsteen's even written songs reflecting his feelings about getting burned by the business in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PROMISE")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) When the promise was broken.

TATIANA CIRISANO: The pandemic is part of it. I mean, touring has been stalled for some time. It could be stalled again.

ULABY: Music analyst Tatiana Cirisano says even Bruce Springsteen took a hit when it came to live performances last year. And who knows what lies ahead? We do know capital gains will likely change.

CIRISANO: There's a tax advantage to doing it.

ULABY: And let's be honest. Not only are these powerful musicians negotiating favorable deals, but many are senior citizens. They're planning their estates.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. TAMBOURINE MAN")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man.

ULABY: When Bob Dylan sold his entire songwriting catalog to Universal Music last year, it included tunes he'd written more than 50 years ago. So he's taking a lump sum now rather than counting on royalties from whenever it goes viral on whatever TikTok might be in a few decades. Even younger artists, like Shakira and Calvin Harris, recently sold parts of their back catalogs because corporations are paying so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STRINGER: In this lower interest rate environment, we are seeing a larger base of private equity, technology platforms, pension funds and others aggressively investing in music assets.

ULABY: The chairman of Sony Music Group, Rob Stringer, told investors this spring not to worry about these pricey back catalogs. Stocks go up and down, but music - it's a safe cash flow, thanks to Spotify, Apple and other streaming and subscription services.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STRINGER: The number of users of paid music streaming services went up by almost 100 million in 2020.

ULABY: And expected to go up hundreds of millions more - synergy is also the name of the game here. When Sony buys up Bruce Springsteen, they can use his music more easily in the movies and TV made by Sony Studios. Other artists on Sony labels can sample or cover his songs. And whenever a Bruce Springsteen biopic comes out, you can bet a Sony movie studio will make it.

Other artists are said to be on the verge of selling their catalogs, including the estate of David Bowie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD")

DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Oh, no, not me.

ULABY: Whatever it's worth will be determined in part by the data we may be providing at this exact moment, if you're listening to this report on streaming.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD")

BOWIE: (Singing) With the man who sold the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.