Last year, Bob Dylan received a special delivery from his longtime label, Sony Music’s Columbia Records: a cream-colored 1959 Chevrolet Impala with a green-hued interior that cost about $100,000, once Sony had the engine rebuilt, sources told Billboard.
The vintage car was not just an 80th birthday gift, but likely a token of Sony’s appreciation as well for the deal that Dylan quietly reached with the record company last summer to sell his master recordings, which Billboard estimates are now worth $200 million or more, based on the revenue they generate — an estimated $16 million a year worldwide — and the standard multiple investors now apply to determine the value of assets. The deal closed in mid-2021, however, when recorded-music catalogs were trading at slightly lower multiples, meaning that Sony could have paid a bit less. In a separate deal, Dylan also extended his recording contract with Columbia.
Neither Sony nor Dylan’s team would comment on the deal terms. But in a press release Monday, Dylan said that “Columbia Records and Rob Stringer have been nothing but good to me for many, many years and a whole lot of records. I’m glad that all my recordings can stay where they belong.”
Rob Stringer, chairman of Sony Music Group, said in the release that “Columbia Records has had a special relationship with Bob Dylan from the beginning of his career” and that the company was “excited to work with Bob and his team to find new ways to make his music available to his many fans today and to future generations.”
The catalog deal includes all of Dylan’s recordings – 39 studio albums, 16 “Bootleg Series” compilations of outtakes and live recordings, and numerous singles and rarities – plus unreleased material that could be compiled and put out in the future. It does not include rights to Dylan’s lyrics and compositions, which Universal Music Group announced it bought in December 2020, for a price said to be about $400 million, almost 30 times its net publishers share. When that announcement was made, Billboard noted that the artist was likely to also sell his recordings, which he had come to own under the terms of his deal with Columbia. Dylan’s recordings generate about $16 million a year worldwide, Billboard estimates, and such an iconic catalog would presumably sell for a multiple of about 15 to 20 times annual revenue, which so far has been the upper limit on price for iconic recording catalogs.
Dylan has not announced plans for a new album, but he is still actively touring, and his June 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, got almost universally positive reviews. Sony will also continue to release albums in the “Bootleg Series,” many of which are multiple disc sets that sell for high prices.
The announcement of the deal comes at a time of increased interest in, and prices for, recording and publishing catalogs, both of which are reaching unprecedented multiples. It also comes on the heels of Sony’s roughly $500 million acquisition of both the song and recording catalogs of another Columbia legend: Bruce Springsteen. That deal, announced in December, was financed on the publishing side in part by Eldridge Industries, a private investment firm co-founded in 2015 by Todd Boehly, which has stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers, the sports gambling company DraftKings, and P-MRC, a joint venture of MRC and Penske Media Corporation that operates Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, and other media brands. Sony is the sole buyer of Dylan’s recordings, however.
Springsteen and Dylan have a similar commercial footprint: Springsteen’s recordings averaged over the last three years about 585,000 in U.S. album consumption units, while Dylan’s recording catalog, which includes about twice as many albums, over the same time period averaged about 540,00 U.S. album consumption units. Together, these acquisitions give Sony complete ownership of two catalogs that helped shape Columbia, its flagship label, as well as rock music and pop culture in general.
Dylan’s recordings were not known to be up for sale, and it’s not surprising that they ended up with Sony. Dylan has spent his entire career on Columbia, aside from two albums that came out in 1974, and it’s hard to think of an important artist who’s more identified with his label. He was signed in 1961 by the legendary A&R executive John Hammond, who also signed Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen. He stayed on Columbia until 1973, when he left for David Geffen’s Asylum Records, where the following year he released Planet Waves and the live album Before the Flood (with The Band), then returned to Columbia, which has been distributing those albums since the beginning of the CD era. (It was a tough breakup: After Dylan told Columbia he was leaving, the label released the Dylan album of outtakes without his input.) Dylan has been on Columbia ever since – the only major artist who has been there since he has is Barbra Streisand – and the introduction used at his live shows identifies him as “Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.”
Dylan seems to have used his 1974 return to Columbia to begin regaining control over his masters. At least some of his contract negotiations at the time involved getting ownership of his recordings, according to Dylan: A Biography, by Bob Spitz, and Geffen told Rolling Stone at the time that Dylan’s new deal at Columbia called for the artist to regain ownership of his recordings five years after they were released.