A couple of weeks ago, we found out Bob Dylan had sold song rights to his entire catalogue to Universal Music. This sparked a debate on musicians' income not seen in a while...

When it was announced that Bob Dylan‘s catalogue had been acquired by Universal Music, several elements made the news particularly noteworthy:

  1. it was Bob Dylan we were talking about, the only musician to ever receive a Nobel prize;
  2. it was the sheer amount mentioned, $200 million, which would sound astronomical for everyone except Jeff Bezos;
  3. it was a somewhat surprising move from the outside, as an artist of this stature wouldn’t typically feel the need to sell off their rights to a major corporation…

Or did they?

While the topic is still hotly debated — and rightfully so: the issue of musicians’ wagers is a very relevant one — a few things should be pointed out:

  • What Bob Dylan did, many other artists did before him. It was (albeit more discreetly) revealed that Lil Wayne had sold the entire catalogue of his label this summer — for a cool $100 million, i.e. half of Dylan’s: not bad for a man not even half his age… Not to be outdone, Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks did the same a week prior to Dylan. And so did Imagine Dragons: in other words, it doesn’t matter which musical style you are working with, or which generation you belong to, they’re all doing it. At least many of them are.
  • The deal actually makes sense — for Bob Dylan: on the one hand, streaming has increased the importance of back catalogues, fostered by this Covid crisis which left us stranded with our Spotify accounts in lieu of musical performances. On the other hand, Dylan stands to save millions in taxes by cashing out in one fell swoop rather than collecting yearly royalties — and paying yearly taxes. Also, it may prove easier to split as an inheritance — down the line, of course: we all wish the man lived long enough to write another 600 songs… At least.
  • It does not say all the much about the future of streaming in general and Spotify in particular as to how artists are to make a living with this new business model. In actuality, and as always when a new technological revolution comes up, there are upsides and downsides to this. A key upside, as mentioned above, is that streaming actually tends to promote artists’ catalogues. The downside being — not all artists’ catalogues are equal in this, and there appears to be an increase in the discrepancy between high profile artists (those selling their song rights, as it happens) and lower profile artists who fail to reach a threshold high enough to properly live off their work.

The debate will not be solved here, unfortunately, as it would require far more than a blog post. Let us just say that the issue is a far more complex than appears to look at first glance — and that Dylan will not be struggling to pay his mortgage anytime soon…