Bob Dylan sells rights to all his songs to Universal Music Group for reported $400 million

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Bob Dylan has sold publishing rights to his catalogue of more than 600 songs, one of the greatest treasures in popular music, for hundreds of millions of dollars.

The catalogue, sold to Universal Music Group’s publishing arm, includes such modern standards as Blowin’ In The Wind, Tangled Up in Blue, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, and Like a Rolling Stone, a body of work that may only be matched for its breadth and influence by the Beatles.

“The deal is the most significant music publishing agreement this century and one of the most important of all time,” UMG said in a press release.

The 79-year-old songwriting legend, one of the defining figures of 20th Century popular music, earned an estimated $400 million from the sale, according to The New York Times, which first reported it.

Why these catalogues are so valuable

Announcing the deal overnight, Sir Lucian Grainge, CEO of Universal Music Group, said:

In cultural terms, Dylan’s catalogue is “quite literally priceless,” said Anthony DeCurtis, a veteran music writer and contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

“It has been 60 years and it’s still going strong,” DeCurtis said. “There’s no reason to believe there’s going to be any diminishment in its significance.”

To give some indication of its value, Stevie Nicks recently sold an 80 per cent stake in her music to the publisher and talent management company Primary Wave for a reported $135 million.

The deal includes 600 songs dating back to his earlier releases.(Flickr: Jeremy Chan)

With streaming having propped up an industry that was faltering from piracy in the 2000s, artists’ back catalogues have become more valuable.

Companies like Universal compete with newer outfits like Primary Wave and British company Hipgnosis Song Fund to control the use of songs for advertising and placement in movies, television shows or video games.

While songwriters like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young all have valuable catalogues, their work can’t match Dylan for its volume and significance, said Alan Light, a veteran music writer who hosts his own SiriusXM show.

Controlling that catalogue gives a company enormous potential to profit for many years off the cultural significance of Dylan’s work.

This might not be the last deal for a music veteran

The deal does not include rights to Dylan’s own recordings of his material. So, if Universal is approached to use Dylan’s recording of Lay Lady Lay, for example, it would have to be cleared by the artist.

Instead, it hands over control of the copyrighted lyrics and melody. From now on, whenever these 600 songs are streamed or played on the radio, those royalties will go to UMG.

Dylan’s songs have been recorded more than 6,000 times, by various artists from dozens of countries, cultures and music genres.

Notable releases include the Byrds’ chart-topping version of Mr Tambourine Man, Jimi Hendrix’s reworking of All Along the Watchtower and Adele’s cover of Make You Feel My Love.

Bob Dylan at Massey Hall, Toronto, April 18, 1980
Dylan continues to record, with his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways a critics’ favourite.(Flickr: Jean-Luc Ourlin)

Dylan has never been a purist when it comes to commercial possibilities, having recorded advertisements for Victoria’s Secret and Cadillac.

And judging from a tweet by David Crosby on Monday, other veteran musicians may be looking for their own deals.

Crosby said he was selling his catalogue too, noting that he can’t work because of the pandemic and that streaming has cut off record sales as a source of income.

“I’m sure the others feel the same.”

Dylan has performed regularly even as he’s aged, so much so that fans have joked he’s been on the “Never-Ending Tour” since the late 1980s. Only the pandemic has grounded him.

He continues to record, with this year’s album Rough and Rowdy Ways landing on best-of-2020 lists at many publications, and the deal does not include any future songs he releases.


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