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A handout photo from Universal Music shows Bob Dylan in the recording sessions for Highway 61 Revisited in New York City, June, 1965.

Handout

Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) has acquired Bob Dylan’s career catalogue of songs for an estimated US$300-million. To put it in terms a boomer will understand, it’s a reverse mortgage loan on a mansion of song.

The sale of Dylan’s songwriting continues a trend. Last week, Stevie Nicks sold a majority of her catalogue to Primary Wave in a deal the Wall Street Journal valued at US$100-million. The publisher and talent management company now has a fat licensing stake in songs such as Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, a blast from 1977 that resurfaced this year on the pop charts thanks to a viral TikTok video.

This spring, Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora sold the rights to his ownership share of FM classics such as Livin’ on a Prayer to the song-acquisition investment company Hipgnosis Songs Fund.

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These deals do not involve the recordings themselves, but songwriter income and control of copyright. The publishers are betting they can recoup their sizeable investments by licensing the songs for use in advertisements, video games, films and television shows.

In this age of streaming, record companies no longer sell as much physical products or digital downloads. Thus, the mechanical royalties for artists and songwriters on the reproduction of recordings is down. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the live music industry, leaving the earning capabilities of musicians in more doubt than ever before.

So, songwriters are cashing out, agreeing to an immediate payout in lieu of a steady flow of royalty cheques. Given the current climate, we’ll see more of it. In reaction to the Dylan sale, songwriter-musician David Crosby said on social media that he too is selling the rights to his songs.

“I can’t work, and streaming stole my record money,” he tweeted. “I have a family and a mortgage and I have to take care of them, so it’s my only option.”

(Incidentally, Crosby and the Byrds gave Dylan his first No. 1 hit when they recorded his Mr. Tambourine Man in 1965.)

Dylan, like Crosby, is 79 years old. Unlike Crosby, he’s outrageously rich and doesn’t need the jackpot he just struck to pay his mortgage. The sale for him is as much about estate planning as anything else. He’s got six children, and grandchildren too.

Up until now, when a film company used a Dylan song, whether it is his recording of it or not, money was paid to Dylan for the usage. Likewise, when an artist covered a Dylan tune – his songs have been recorded more than 6,000 times, by musicians such as Adele, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and Joan Baez – the publishing money went to Dylan.

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Going forward, all future licensing income and songwriting royalties from Dylan’s songs go to UMPG, a division of the French media conglomerate Vivendi. The deal covers 1963′s Blowin’ In The Wind, this year’s Murder Most Foul and everything in between – some 600 titles all told.

To the fans of Dylan, the sale of his publishing catalogue likely won’t mean anything at all. Dylan’s songs have been used in films since the 1960s. Roger McGuinn’s performance of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) in 1969′s Easy Rider comes to mind.

His songs have also been employed in commercials. The counterculture icon is no hippie-dippie purist. The irony of Dylan selling a cover version of The Times They Are A-Changin’ for a Bank of Montreal ad in 1996 was lost on no one – certainly not Dylan himself. More recently, Dylan partnered in a deal involving a collection of handcrafted American whiskeys named Heaven’s Door.

Whether or not we see more commercial uses of Dylan tunes – to sell brass beds (Lay, Lady, Lay), dietary supplements (Ballad of a Thin Man) or patio lanterns (Not Dark Yet) – all depends on what kind of deal he struck. It’s possible he’ll still retain some say in how his songs are used.

Dylan’s latest music reveals an artist consumed with his own mortality. And now this tune tycoon is settling up his business affairs. Some will say that he’s selling out, which is a naive criticism. He’s a songwriter – he sells songs, always has.

On his latest single I Contain Multitudes he sings this: “Today and tomorrow, and yesterday, too / The flowers are dyin’ like all things do.” Yes, Dylan will die, right along with anybody’s lofty idealism on what a songwriting hero is entitled to do with music that is his, not yours.

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