Bruce Springsteen leads ageing rockers in race to cash in music rights

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Bruce Springsteen fans treated to a special New York set last month were unaware of the career-defining moment taking place off stage.

Just a day after he joined Steve Earle and The Dukes for a charity performance, The Boss unveiled a $500m (£369m) music rights sale that cemented his place in rock’s hall of fame. 

By offloading his master recordings and publishing rights to Sony Music, the singer behind era-defining albums such as Born to Run and The River sealed the largest ever sale of one artist’s work. 

For those inside the music industry, the transaction will have come as no surprise. It was simply the latest in a welter of deals for artist and producer royalties that helped the value of music mergers and acquisitions reach record heights in 2021.

Nearly $13bn (£10bn) was spent last year, up from $5bn in 2020 according to data from MIDiA Research, with the boom expected to continue as private equity and pension funds pile in. 

The huge deals are an example of supply and demand working in perfect harmony. Music investment funds eager to transform the hits of yesteryear into a new asset class have been prowling the market as they seek to capitalise on the consistent returns delivered by music streaming. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic-induced prohibition on live music, the prospect of a US capital gains tax hike on song rights sales of more than $1m and the meagre returns some artists make from streaming compared to traditional records have prompted many to cash in.  

Hipgnosis, the London-listed fund spearheaded by former Elton John manager Merck Mercuriadis, has secured music rights to Shakira, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bon Jovi.

Bob Dylan has sold his catalogue to Universal Music, while BMG, the Bertelsmann-owned record label, bought Tina Turner’s back catalogue in October. That swoop was swiftly followed with a $150m deal for the song royalties of the heavy metal band Motley Crew. 

David Bowie’s estate, worth more than $200m, could be next to follow as Warner Music eyes the Thin White Duke’s songwriting catalogue.

Kriss Thakrar, an analyst at MIDiA , says a new round of investment is now gearing up to target latter-day hits. 

“There’s an investor narrative that streaming is creating this resurgence of revenue for classic hits, which is why a lot of the biggest deals are for older rock artists, as much of the demand is competing for the same supply,” he adds. 

“However, there are a lot of more modern catalogues that have a lot of unrealised potential in the pop, hip hop and the R&B space.”

Private equity is also hoping to take a slice of the steady, long-term, returns delivered by songbooks in an era of low interest rates.

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