In what could be the biggest deal ever for a single songwriter, Universal Music Publishing Group announced today (Dec. 7) that it had purchased Bob Dylan’s entire catalog of songs, from 1962 to the present, from Dylan himself. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the acquisition includes both publishing rights and Dylan’s “writer’s share,” which together would be worth at least $100 million, and probably several times that, based on the value of other catalogs.
Dylan’s publishing is currently administered in the U.S. by the Bob Dylan Music Company and elsewhere by Sony/ATV Music Publishing. A Sony/ATV spokesperson said that arrangement outside the U.S. would continue for “several years,” until that contract expires.
The market for publishing deals has continued to heat up, even amid the pandemic, fueled by the boom in streaming, as well as low interest rates that make acquisitions more appealing. The temporary shutdown of the concert business, as well as the possibility that president-elect Joe Biden will raise the capital gains tax, seem to be spurring sales, too.
Another factor, industry sources say, is that the generation of singer-songwriters who came of age in the sixties and seventies is at a point where they’re thinking about their legacies, as well as estate planning. On December 4, Primary Wave Music Publishing announced that it had acquired a majority stake in the catalog of singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks, in a deal that The Wall Street Journal reported valued her compositions at $100 million. That deal and Dylan’s could trigger more big catalog transactions.
This is a unique prize, however. Among the songwriters of the rock era, only the Beatles are as influential as Dylan, the only songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His catalog includes more than 600 compositions, written over the course of six decades, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,'” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “Tangled Up in Blue.”
“To represent the body of work of one of the greatest songwriters of all time – whose cultural importance can’t be overstated – is both a privilege and a responsibility,” said UMPG chairman & CEO Jody Gerson in the UMG statement announcing the deal. In an internal company note about the deal, Universal Music Group chairman and CEO Sir Lucian Grainge wrote that the acquisition has “forever transformed the legacy of this company.”
In the early sixties, Dylan, now 79, become one of the first popular artists to consistently write his own material, in the process overturning the dominant music publishing model of the time, which involved professional songwriters composing tunes to pitch to singers. Although Dylan has released 39 albums, some of his songs are still better known as recordings by other artists — from Jimi Hendrix’s iconic cover of “All Along the Watchtower” to Garth Brooks’ and Adele’s versions of “Make You Feel My Love.”
“A substantial value of the catalog resides in the covers of his famous works,” says Barry Massarsky, president of Massarsky Consulting, which consults on publishing deals, though not on this transaction.
Some other recent big publishing acquisitions have essentially been auctions, but this deal seems to have been conducted fairly privately. There was no bidding war, according to a source close to the deal, which came out of the relationship between Dylan’s team and Universal Publishing, especially UMPG COO Marc Cimino, whom Gerson credited in the announcement as “instrumental in bringing this opportunity to us.”
Over the past decade, many creators have sold their catalogs to independent publishers, some of which are funded by private equity investors. But the majors – Universal, Sony/ATV, and Warner Chappell Music – still dominate the business. “When you put songwriters first, when you achieve unparalleled value for the art they create, when your track record is clear and consistent then the best of the best come to you,” Grainge wrote in his internal note.
Publishing catalogs are generally valued by multiples of net publisher’s share – roughly gross profit after songwriter royalties are paid out – and the most valuable now sell for 17 or 18 times net publisher’s share, up from 14 or 15 times several years ago. It’s hard to estimate how much revenue Dylan’s publishing brings in, however, since his songs are so widely covered. The publishing from sales and streaming of Dylan’s own recordings might have been worth about a half a million dollars in the U.S. in 2019, according to a Billboard estimate. But the publishing from other versions of his songs could be worth several times that – cover versions of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” alone generated more than $150,000 in the U.S. from sales and streaming last year – and synch licensing in movies, television shows and advertising generates still more revenue, as do “public performance” royalties when his songs are played in clubs, restaurants, or stores. so does the musical, Girl from the North Country.
Dylan’s songs have been covered by artists all over the world, from Brazilian icon Caetano Veloso to “Austropop” singer Wolfgang Ambros, and the use of his songs in advertising still generates attention. The iconic stature of Dylan’s songs could also open up other businesses: His lyrics have already been licensed for lyric books, picture books, and even a comic book (“Bob Dylan Revisited: 12 Graphic Interpretations of Bob Dylan Songs.”) And the fact that Darius Rucker had a No. 1 county hit with “Wagon Wheel,” based partly on an unreleased Dylan song from 1973, shows that money could be made in more traditional ways as well.
It’s hard to imagine many songwriters’ catalogs that would be worth more, partly because most classic rock catalogs are smaller, and many were the products of writing partnerships. Dylan seldom worked with other writers – most prominently the theatre director Jacques Levy on Desire and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on Together Through Life – and he composed by himself the vast majority of his songs, and all of the most popular ones.
Over the years, Dylan’s songs were divided into several catalogs, including Dwarf Music, Big Sky Music, Ram’s Horn Music, and Special Rider Music. This deal includes all of them, plus those written during Dylan’s 1962-1965 publishing deal with Witmark & Sons, which reverted to him. (Dylan’s very early compositions, including “Song to Woody” and some obscure topical songs, were published by Leeds Music, which Universal already owns.)
The deal also includes the publishing to “The Weight,” written by Robbie Robertson, the only song in the sale that Dylan did not write or co-write.