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Neil Young Sells 50% of Song Catalog to Hipgnosis

Neil Young
Gus Stewart/Redferns

Neil Young performs on stage at Barclaycard Presents British Summer Time Hyde Park at Hyde Park on July 12, 2019 in London.

After decades of refusing to “sell out” by licensing his songs for use in commercials, Neil Young has made a deal to sell 50% of his song catalog to Hipgnosis Songs for an amount thought to be a record multiple of revenue, according to the standard industry measure. The deal, which could have valued the catalog at between $90 million and $105 million was announced Wednesday (Jan. 6), and terms were not disclosed.

Hipgnosis has been on an acquisition binge, and the company has spent nearly $2 billion on music assets since Merck Mercuriadis founded it in 2018. The Young acquisition is the second big deal in as many days for Hipgnosis, following a Tuesday announcement that it bought 100% of the catalog of Fleetwood Mac frontman Lindsey Buckingham, including the songs he wrote for the band. On Monday, the company accounted that it purchased Jimmy Iovine's royalties as a producer.

Young’s catalog includes some 1,180 songs, according to a statement announcing the deal, which he wrote over the course of a career that’s lasted more than five decades and included stints with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Over that time, Young has released 41 studio albums, plus live albums, soundtracks, and more than a dozen archival sets, which together have accounted for sold 26.5 million album consumption units in the U.S. since May 1991 when MRC Data/Nielsen Music began tracking music activity. Young’s commercial heyday precedes that, of course, and in 1972 he had a No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 with “Heart of Gold,” from the album Harvest, which also topped the Billboard 200.

“I built Hipgnosis to be a company Neil would want to be a part of,” Mercuriadis said in a statement. “We have a common integrity, ethos and passion born out of a belief in music and these important songs... This is a deal that changes Hipgnosis forever and it’s a dream to welcome Neil, Frank, Bonnie and the team to the Hipgnosis family.”

Young had been managed for decades by Elliot Roberts, who passed away last year. His affairs are now handled by Frank Gironda, an associate of Roberts who was mentioned in the announcement, as was Bonnie Levitan, another member of Young’s management team. Young, 75, has been releasing projects from his archives for the past few years, and in 2020 he put out two such sets, plus a 10-CD box set, Archives Volume II: 1972-1976.

The terms of this deal weren’t disclosed, but industry sources have said that Young wanted a multiple higher than 30 times net publishers’ share, or gross profit. Since Young owns both the writers share and the publishers share of his compositions, that would mean about 30 times the annual revenue the catalog brings in, which Billboard estimates at about $3 million to $3.5 million. That implies a valuation of between $90 million and $105 million, although it’s unclear if Young received that from Hipgnosis. A Hipgnosis spokesperson says that, as part of the agreement, it cannot discuss terms.

Such a valuation would be considered expensive by any standard, however – and remarkable for a creator who has always refused to allow his songs to be used in ads. Famously, in 1988, Young released “This Note’s For You,” in which he mocked the way songs were used in television commercials, and declared “Ain't singin' for Pepsi / Ain't singin' for Coke / I don't sing for nobody / Makes me look like a joke.” (Last year, Young sued Trump for using his songs at rallies.)

Young’s catalog was first shopped around with the condition that any deal would allow Young to retain control of the use of his songs, according to sources, a provision that would make it harder for Hipgnosis to grow revenue. Since this deal involves half of Young’s writers share and half of his publishers share, according to a Hipgnosis spokesperson, “they both approve synchs,” which are necessary to use songs in movies, shows, and commercials.

It will be interesting to see if Young’s music does appear in ads – as well as what company will handle the administration. Currently, most, if not all, of Young’s songs are now administered by Wixen Music Publishing, and it is not clear if the catalog will stay there or move to Hipgnosis Songs Group.