Bob Dylan Sells Entire Songwriting Catalog

Bob Dylan Sells Entire Songwriting Catalog

Universal Music Publishing Group acquires iconic singer-songwriter's music

Bob Dylan, right, has sold more than 125 million records globally. (Photo: AFP)
Bob Dylan, right, has sold more than 125 million records globally. (Photo: AFP)

Bob Dylan is tangled up in green.

The 79-year-old legendary pioneer of modern rock music, and the only songwriter to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, has sold his entire publishing catalog -- more than 600 copyrights spanning 60 years -- to Universal Music Publishing Group, according to the company.

While terms of the deal weren't disclosed, the catalog is likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- rivaled in value and influence only by the Beatles.

The move helps Mr. Dylan, who has long controlled most of his songwriting copyrights, to cement his musical legacy and set up his estate by cashing in on his life's work.

His decision to cede control follows a lifetime spent shaping his image by touring and by offering fans access to archives of unreleased music and details about his life in numerous documentary films. Yet, his choice also hews closely to his more liberal approach to the use of his songs and lyrics by other artists and in media.

"This sale represents what is likely the largest single writer deal in the history of popular music," said Bill Werde, director of Syracuse University's Bandier music-industry program. "There remains such demand to be associated with Dylan."

His timing is fortunate. Over the past five years, owning and selling the rights to music has become more valuable as revenue from music streaming on services such as Spotify Technology SA and Apple Inc.'s Apple Music has grown.

Songwriter catalogs have been commanding sale prices that amount to 10 to 20 times their annual royalties, compared with eight to 13 times in earlier years, according to people involved in the deals. Publishers and other catalog investors see the value of music continuing to increase over time.

"By bringing to UMG the vast and brilliant Dylan songwriting catalog, in an instant, we have forever transformed the legacy of this company," said Lucian Grainge, chief executive of Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group, parent of the publisher, in an email to employees Monday.

A representative for Mr. Dylan declined to comment.

Tapping into artist catalogs has also become a bigger focus during the Covid-19 pandemic, as Mr. Dylan and other musicians have been unable to go on tour, cutting off their most lucrative source of cash during normal times. The rights sales can also mean older artists don't burden heirs with onerous tax payments.

In one recent deal, Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks sold a majority stake in her publishing catalog, which valued it at $100 million, according to people familiar with the transaction.

For Mr. Dylan, the deal means he will no longer benefit financially from the use of the songs in his catalog going forward. Music publishers deal with compositions -- lyrics and melody -- that underlie the sound recordings controlled by record labels.

Universal Music Publishing Group will act as a steward of Mr. Dylan's music and collect when Blowin' in the Wind or Tangled Up in Blue is streamed, played on the radio, used in an advertisement or featured in a film or TV show.

Publishers often consult artists on how to exploit their music. Mr. Dylan's deal doesn't include any future songs he may write.

Representing Mr. Dylan's work "is both a privilege and a responsibility," said Universal Music Publishing Group chief Jody Gerson.

Mr. Dylan's music has already been used hundreds of times in various ways, setting him apart from other artists who are more protective of their copyrights. Dozens of other musicians have covered his songs, including Jimi Hendrix, Guns N' Roses and Adele.

Martin Scorsese directed a 3½-hour film, released in 2005, about Mr. Dylan's early years titled No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. His music has been featured in Super Bowl advertisements, including last year's Budweiser spot, and a Victoria's Secret TV ad in 2004, to the song Angels in Venice.

Mr. Dylan has also simplified his financial and creative legacy. In the case of Prince, who died without a plan for his music catalog, a regional bank ended up in charge of making the call on how his work was used.

Michael Jackson at one point refused to sell a stake in his music publishing catalog even when confronted with financial disaster.

In selling his copyrights, Mr. Dylan creates more tax certainty and potential benefits for himself and his heirs.

He likely will pay a one-time capital-gains tax of 23.8% in addition to state taxes, as opposed to paying 37% plus state tax on the annual income his catalog generates.

Doing the sale now means Mr. Dylan pays the capital-gains tax in accordance with today's rates and rules rather than facing the potential higher rates and tighter restrictions that Democrats have proposed on both capital gains and ordinary income.

For his estate, he can plan tax strategies on his remaining assets without his heirs and the government engaging in a lengthy fight over the value of the copyrighted assets after his death.

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., in 1941, Mr. Dylan broke into New York's Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. He later transformed the genre by introducing electric guitar.

Mr. Dylan has sold more than 125 million records globally.

Richard Rubin contributed to this article.

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