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Selling songs during a pandemic

2020 saw big shifts in the music business, from a squeeze on the livelihood of artists to catalogue sales and live-streamed events

David Crosby, who turns 80 next year, announced that he is looking to sell his catalogue.

Earlier this month, Bob Dylan sprang a surprise by selling his entire catalogue of songs to the Universal Music Publishing Group for more than $300 million (around 2,200 crore). Dylan, whose career has spanned nearly 60 years, has written and composed more than 600 songs. By every reckoning, the deal with Universal could be the most expensive price a recording company has paid for the rights to the works of a single songwriter. It is also a prescient one.

Dylan, who will turn 80 next year, probably heeded the lyrics of one of his famous songs, The Times They Are A-Changin’: Come writers and critics/ Who prophesise with your pen/ And keep your eyes wide/ The chance won’t come again/ And don’t speak too soon/ For the wheel’s still in spin/ And there’s no tellin’ who/ That it’s namin’/ For the loser now/ Will be later to win/ For the times they are a-changin’. Dylan’s deal is likely a chance that won’t come again. In a year when musicians have been badly singed by covid-19, it is a trend-setting shift.

Already, David Crosby, who will also turn 80 next year, has announced that he is looking to sell his catalogue. Crosby tweeted: “I am selling mine also...I can’t work...and streaming stole my record money...I have a family and a mortgage and I have to take care of them so it’s my only option. I’m sure the others feel the same.” Crosby’s announcement was particularly poignant, reflecting the way major shifts in the music industry have affected artists across the world.

The three largest chunks of income for musicians are recordings, live performances, and publishing. But with physical sales of records or purchased downloads declining over the years, earnings from these have fallen sharply. And during this year, with stores either closed or witnessing a dwindling number of visitors, that downtrend has become steeper. While the shift by listeners to streaming services has been a sustained one, musicians earn piffling amounts from streaming. Obviously, the cancellation of tours, gigs and festivals meant these earnings too dried up.

In the contemporary music industry, artists cannot survive on just one source of revenue. There has to be a bundle of revenue streams—gigs, publishing, sales, session work, teaching, sales of merchandise, and so on. During 2020, the pandemic hit almost every stream. That’s one reason why artists are selling or thinking of making deals to sell their catalogues.

Dylan and Crosby aren’t the only ones. Fleetwood Mac’s singer and songwriter Stevie Nicks sold more than three-fourths of the rights to her catalogue to music publisher Primary Wave; and rock group Imagine Dragons have reportedly sold their back catalogue to Concord Publishing. Indications are that many more artists will follow. Some major buyers are raising funds in preparation for such offers.

Hipgnosis Songs Fund, a UK-based company that buys catalogues and allows investors in the fund to make money off royalties, recently raised nearly £190 million (around 1,800 crore) to buy at least 50 catalogues that it has already cherry-picked. For some artists, such deals can be providential, but losing the rights to your own songs can have other outcomes. Depending on the conditions of the deals, songs by artists such as Dylan or Crosby could surface on commercials, or find their lyrics on merchandise, or be used as soundtracks for films. Purists would likely frown upon such use—if it happens.

Yet, not all shifts have been bad for the music business. With live shows drying up, many musicians have tried live-streaming their shows to listeners who are willing to pay for such gigs. And although the numbers may not be comparable to revenue from real physical gigs, the idea appears to be catching on. Some bands, such as The Flaming Lips, have tried concerts where audience members as well as members of the band are housed in bubbles. Others have joined live-stream festivals.

The best thing to have happened during the pandemic is that many musicians have become more creative and productive. Bands, old and new, have used lockdowns and self-isolation to write, record, and publish new music. That trend will probably sustain. Uncertainty dogs the resumption of concerts and live performances; many believe the current status could persist till well into 2021. But one may expect more recorded music by bands and artists—not a bad trend for music aficionados.

The Lounge list of five tracks to bookend your week

1. ‘Turin’ by Actress from ‘Karma & Desire’

2. ‘Frankiphone Blues’ by Roots Magic from ‘Take Root Among the Stars’

3. ‘All Life’s Worth’ by Sunny War from ‘Can I Sit With You?’

4. ‘BTB’ by Moses Boyd from ‘Dark Matter’

5. ‘Patience’ by Chris Cornell from ‘No One Sings Like You Anymore’


First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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