The Winning End

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A few weeks back, when I wrote about Bob Dylan selling his song catalog, I figured that that would be that.

Little did I realize how this is not a one-off but becoming something of a trending phenomenon.

This past week Neil Young sold half of the rights to his 1,180-song catalog to Hipgnosis Songs Fund Ltd. (Jimmy Iovine and Lindsey Buckingham also sold.)

That disclaimer up there: It is at the bottom of a homepage of legalese. This is serious business. Go beyond the homepage at your peril.

In the site, which is, make no mistake, about making money, not music, there is this description:
“The Company’s Investment Adviser is The Family (Music) Limited, which was founded by Merck Mercuriadis, former manager of globally successful recording artists, such as Elton John, Guns N’ Roses, Morrissey, Iron Maiden and Beyoncé, and hit songwriters such as Diane Warren, Justin Tranter and The-Dream, and former CEO of The Sanctuary Group plc. The Investment Adviser has assembled an Advisory Board of highly successful music industry experts which include award winning members of the artist, songwriter, publishing, legal, financial, recorded music and music management communities, all with in-depth knowledge of music publishing. Members of The Family (Music) Limited Advisory Board include Nile Rodgers, The-Dream, Giorgio Tuinfort, Starrah, Nick Jarjour, David Stewart, Bill Leibowitz, Ian Montone, Rodney Jerkins, Bjorn Lindvall and Chris Helm.”

Bet you never thought you would see Iron Maiden and Beyoncé in the same sentence.

According to a story in the New York Times in December 2020, Mercuriadis, whose fund then had spent $1.7-billion on hoovering up catalogs—Times: “Hipgnosis owns, in full or in part, 188 songs by Jack Antonoff, a collaborator of Taylor Swift; 197 by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie; 814 by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan; 315 by Mark Ronson; 1,068 by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics; and production royalties for 108 tracks by the hip-hop producer Timbaland”—said that he’s doing it because “I wanted to be able to do something that would contribute to having the music industry recognize that the songwriter and the producer are really the star of the show.”

So by buying up the catalogs, said songwriters and producers get more ready pocket money than they would have otherwise had. I must admit I am a bit mystified as to how producers make money off the deal, though I suspect they must.

Clearly, Mercuriadis, who may be a fan with exceedingly deep pockets, to say nothing of ready access to the pockets of others, isn’t doing this entirely for Sir Gawain-pure purposes. There isn’t that large warning on the top of the Hipgnosis page because all ye who enter are going to come out unscathed: this is about betting on the come.

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I can still remember buying my first Neil Young album—yes, back then there were two recorded media: LPs and 45s—Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in 1969 and playing it over and over and over again on the record player. Yes, “record player,” because although it was a stereo, it was the sort of cheap thing that a teenager could afford. Play side one, flip it over; play side two. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” were my two favorite cuts. They were the last songs on either side, so I had to listen to the other seven songs to get there. Not that I minded.

What’s more, it is notable how, time-wise*, there is so little music there:
• “Cinnamon Girl,” 2:58
• “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” 2.26
• “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long),” 5:49
• “The Losing End (When You’re On),” 4:03
• “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets),” 5:30

It is somewhat remarkable that of the three songs on side two—“The Losing End,” “Running Dry” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,”—“Cowgirl” is longer than the other two combined: 10:06. (To complete the set: “Down by the River”: 9:13.)

That was music that had a formative influence on me. Just like one’s high school love, it has a lasting effect, even though with time memory morphs such that there is something that is real, but something, something bigger, that wasn’t quite the way it was. Still, it is special in a way that subsequent things aren’t.

So in the context of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the music is something that has a resonance with me in a way that the subsequent Neil Young albums I’ve owned doesn’t. (At this point I could make a comment about Trans, but I won’t.)

We pay money. We buy an album. We pay money. We get a concert ticket. We listen. We see. We don’t think much about it.

Is the musician making money? Is the musician able to pay the rent? Buy groceries? Go to the dentist?
Undoubtedly, early in his career, Neil Young faced those and other issues that didn’t really occur to the rest of us.

And now, half a century later, Young is taking much of what he has created and turning it into ready cash.

It is hard to think about music that way.

But there it is.

And Mercuriadis and many others are looking at it the same way others look at Bitcoin or shares of Tesla.

*This shouldn’t be construed as indicating that the length of a composition/performance indicate how much “music” there is. Sometime less is truly more.

One thought on “The Winning End”

  1. I’m honestly not sure what to think of these moves. Ultimately, as the years progress, it will be harder and harder for guys like Neil and Bob to tour, and with the pandemic putting a pin in that process until further notice, this makes sense short-term to ensure that they are set should they either choose to retire or if the choice to retire is made for them.

    The downside is that forever more, Bob, Neil, Stevie, Croz, none of these artists will be able to decide the fate of how the songs they created will be used in the future. Laxatives, hemorrhoid creams, multinational arms dealers, anyone who is willing to pay the right money to Hipgnosis Song Fund will (in theory) be able to use these songs to flog their wares. You (at least I) hope that if “Rockin’ In The Free World” gets used to promote the Trump 2024 presidential campaign, that a portion of the public will know that Neil Young does not personally endorse unhinged wannabe-fascists. But then again, nearly half of the United States chose to vote for the orange eunuch, so confusing messaging might be a constant concern for these artists going forward, and will force them to explicitly state their case going forward. Or they’ll just say, “fuck it” and let the chips fall where they may. Who knows…

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