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$ong sung green as music sales boom

By Peter Funt

Nathaniel Adams Coles was 15 when he dropped out of Wendell Phillips Academy in Chicago to pursue a career in music. Three years later, in 1937, he managed to sell his first song, a catchy tune called “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” for fifty dollars. Coles died of cancer in 1965, but just the other day his daughters completed a sale of his music catalog to Iconic Artists Group for a sum believed to be in the multi-millions.

Though Nat King Cole, as he was known professionally, had uncommon musical success—with more than 150 singles on the Billboard charts — his posthumous good fortune is surprisingly routine. Dozens of artists and their estates are selling catalogs in what has become an unprecedented stampede.

Six days earlier, Hipgnosis Song Management announced the acquisition of 278 songs by Leonard Cohen, who died in 2016, including “Hallelujah,” the moving pop canticle that has been covered over 300 times. The week before, Neil Diamond sold his catalog featuring “Sweet Caroline,” “Song Sung Blue,” and other hits to Universal Music Publishing Group. Terms of these mega-deals were not reported, but a few recent transactions have been eye-opening.

In December, Sony Music paid a reported $500 million for Bruce Springsteen’s catalog (“Born in the U.S.A.,” “Born to Run”). The sale surpassed the $400 million Universal paid for Bob Dylan’s library (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’”). The trade publication Music Business Worldwide estimated that over $5 billion changed hands through music rights acquisitions last year.

Such deals are windfalls for rights holders, but are they good business for media companies? Billboard estimates that Springstein’s catalog earns about $15 million per year, making the price paid by Sony a 33x multiple. Clearly, prices are being driven, at least in part, by competition, ego and nostalgia.

In February Universal paid Sting (“Roxanne,” “Every Breath You Take”) an estimated $300 million for his personal catalog along with music by the rock band The Police. Sony has purchased the work of dozens of artists, including Paul Simon (“The Sound of Silence,” “The Boxer”), who received $250 million.

One of the earliest music speculators was Paul McCartney. When the Beatles lost control of their publishing company Northern Songs in 1969, McCartney set out to acquire other catalogs including the music of Buddy Holly (“That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue”), which he purchased in 1976.

Nine years later, McCartney’s own music was swept up by Michael Jackson who bought the Beatles catalog for $47.5 million. In 2013, those assets were included in a sale by Jackson’s estate to Sony/ATV for $750 million. McCartney, meanwhile, pursued copyright claims relating to his material. In 2017 he reached a settlement with Sony/ATV and reacquired rights to the Beatles catalog, now said to be worth $1 billion.

In the 1990s, as the internet began to disrupt music royalties that had flowed fairly consistently from play on radio stations, David Bowie (“Starman,” “Let’s Dance”) took the unusual step of working with a Wall Street firm to create what were known as Bowie Bonds. Investors were guaranteed 7.9 percent return on the catalog, while Bowie himself received a payout of $55 million — for rights he took back 10 years later.

Bowie died of cancer in 2016. In January of this year, his estate completed a catalog sale to Warner Chappell Music for $250 million. For heirs, as well as for singers and songwriters who are late in life, such sales provide a huge lump payout, while eliminating the need to manage complex music portfolios.

While it lasts, it is, according to the title of a memorable Nat King Cole hit, “Too Marvelous for Words.”

Peter Funt’s new memoir, “Self-Amused,” is now available at

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