Music labels clamor to buy pricey Sting and David Bowie catalogs

Major record labels are clamoring to acquire the song catalogs of rock ‘n’ roll icons — and they’re poised to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to get the deals done.

Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record label, which reps the likes of Taylor Swift, BTS, Kanye West and Billie Eilish, is in advance talks to scoop up Sting’s song catalog for upwards of $250 million, Variety reported this week.

Meanwhile, Warner Music Group, home to artists such as Cardi B, Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars, is in talks with Bowie’s estate to acquire the late music icon’s songwriting catalog, according to a report from the Financial Times.

The company is raising $535 million in debt to support the potential deal, the report said, citing people familiar with the matter.

The deals are part of a long string of established artists selling their songbooks to big-pocketed investors or music labels. They’re also fueled by streaming, which offers the possibility of more lucrative royalties as customers flock to services like Spotify and Apple Music.

And deals have ramped up during the coronavirus pandemic due in part to low interest rates that make it easier for companies to borrow money to purchase large assets.

Sting performs during opening night of his residency: "Sting: My Songs" at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace on October 29, 2021 in Las Vegas,
Sting’s song catalog could fetch upwards of $250 million, according to reports.
Getty Images for Caesars Enterta

Sting’s music, which includes hits like “Every Breath You Take,” “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” may remain with Sony Music Publishing. But the potential deal is part of a larger push of music labels to shell out big bucks for the master rights of legendary musicians’ work.

For legendary rockers who have already minted their superstar status, it’s also a way to get a massive pay day.

David Bowie (wearing an eyepatch) performs 'Rebel Rebel' on the TV show TopPop on 7th February 1974
David Bowie’s master recordings, which includes “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars?” and “Rebel Rebel” could bring in over $500 million.
Redferns

Case in point: Bob Dylan sold his massive 600-song catalog to Universal Music Publishing Group for a reported $300 million to $400 million in December 2020. 

Around the same time, Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks sold 80 percent of her rights to her own songwriting catalog, including hits like “Landslide” and “Edge of Seventeen,” to music publisher Primary Wave for a reported $100 million.

A month later, Neil Young sold half the rights to his song catalog to UK publishing house, Hipgnosis Song Fund, including “Heart of Gold,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Cinnamon Girl.” The deal was estimated to be worth $150 million.

In April of this year, Paul Simon sold his catalog, which includes hit songs such as  “The Sound of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson,” for a reported $250 million to Sony Music.

And the Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which buys hit catalogs and then gives investors the chance to make money from the royalties, also spent about $670 million from March 2020 to September 2020 alone on acquiring the rights to more than 44,000 songs by Blondie, Enrique Iglesias, Barry Manilow and Timbaland, and others.

Sting of English rock band The Police during a video shoot for their single "Synchronicity II" at Shepperton Studios near London, England in July 1983.
Sting follows other legendary rockers in selling his master recordings for big bucks.
Popperfoto via Getty Images

Other big back-catalog deals include Michael Jackson’s purchase of 250 Lennon-McCartney songs as part of a $47.5 million deal in 1985, as well as the headline-grabbing sale of part of pop star Taylor Swift’s catalog.

 David Bowie performs during the Glass Spider Tour at the St. Paul Civic Center in St. Paul, Minnesota on October 1, 1987
Bowie’s catalogue may be one of the biggest back-catalog deals ever.
Getty Images

Late last year, the publishing rights to Swift’s first six albums, which has been the subject of a bitter battle between the singer and music executives Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta, were sold to a private equity group, Shamrock, for more than $300 million.

Swift is in the process of recording those albums. The singer has already re-recorded her 2008 album “Fearless,” which was released in April. And this week, Swift released a new version of her 2012 record, “Red.”

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