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How Will It Change the Industry?

Let me start this column the way I ended the last one: Private equity isn’t destroying the music business. But it’s worth wondering: How will so much outside investment change the way the music industry works?  

Obviously, we’re going to see more documentaries, Broadway shows and box sets, both to make money and to promote catalogs. But will this lead to significant changes to royalty distribution or the industry’s balance of power? And is there even a small chance of what might be called a subprime publishing meltdown?

As Cyndi Lauper sang, though, money changes everything — and that was before her recent rights sale. So I spoke with a half dozen serious players — music publishers and private-equity-backed catalog buyers of rights, plus lawyers and consultants who have been working on these deals since investment started flooding into the music business at the end of the 2010s, about how these new players are changing the business. Any new investment sector will have successes and failures — a new report from Shot Tower Capital says Hipgnosis Songs Fund overstated its revenue and overpaid for catalogs, although Hipgnosis has said it disputes this — but what does all of this mean for music in the long term?

One of the few points of agreement is that this has been great for creators so far, especially songwriters. These deals involve creators who are already making money, but the ability to sell their catalogs lets them replace a steady stream of revenue with a one-time cash infusion — it’s “allowed artists the ability to have more liquidity opportunities,” according to one buyer. This is helpful if they need cash, want to diversify their assets, or have to think about estate planning. The emergence of outside buyers has also spurred traditional music companies to buy more publishing assets, especially in cases where they already own related rights, for reasons that can be either strategic (“we can bundle rights”) or defensive (“we can monetize this without interference”). That competition implies that prices will rise, which is good for creators.  

It also means that potential investors will bid for a wider range of catalogs, including more recent songs in more genres — which is already happening. So what happens when some of the world’s biggest investment entities own so many catalogs? They will push — using the various tools at their disposal — to raise the value of their assets. They will not do this out of goodwill, of course; they will do it out of self-interest. But any move that raises the value of the song catalogs that they own will also raise the value of the song catalogs that they do not, and this could be very good for songwriters.  

“Investors now stand in the shoes of the songwriter,” as one buyer of catalogs told me, “and will use their political clout to help make how a songwriter is paid fairer.” An executive who works for another company that buys catalogs is skeptical of some private-equity-backed ventures, because “their incentives are misaligned with those of creators.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. To the extent that some aspects of copyright regulation involve political power, the influence of private equity could counter that of the big technology companies that generally lobby to undermine copyright. Two executives even suggested that private equity could serve as an engine of reform to make collective management organizations more transparent. “We put up with all of this,” the argument goes, “but Wall Street won’t stand for it!” 

Right now, some of the catalog acquisition business rests on the idea that new buyers can do more to promote songs than the current owners, especially with film or theater projects. Eventually, though, at least some of that advantage could disappear. Executives can see what works, and some of them will inevitably bring that knowledge to other companies. Plus, as we reach Peak Rock Doc, catalog owners — traditional publishers and private equity players alike — could start to see diminishing returns. 

What about the downsides? The reason private equity has such a bad reputation is that it usually buys assets with considerable leverage and holds them for a limited amount of time, which can often result in layoffs at companies in which they invest. Although deal structures vary, a source familiar with many deals told me that buyers generally don’t borrow more than half the purchase price of copyright assets, which seems reasonable. 

Eventually, of course, some buyers will become sellers, presumably because their funds have run their course, or perhaps because they do come under pressure. In some cases, operators will be able to attract other investment. In others, “secondary sales will just expand the field for what is in play,” a publishing executive pointed out. A market for publishing assets inevitably means that not everyone will succeed — but it should also provide other buyers. A certain amount of consolidation may be inevitable, but it might not be so bad. Some writers will worry about how the new owner of their songs will treat them, but realistically — and this might sound cold, but it’s also true — that’s something creators need to think about before they sell.  

Is there any chance of a broader market failure — a subprime copyright crisis, of sorts? Music copyrights generate steady cash the way mortgages once did, but while individual investments can rise or fall, it’s harder to imagine that a financial squeeze would lead to a selling frenzy that would send prices downward across the board. This isn’t a massive liquid market the way housing is, plus there’s less leverage and far more due diligence about the assets being purchased. (One lawyer said that this market is encouraging creators and publishers to improve their contracts and document-retention practices.) 

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, the market for music copyrights might actually be more solid than that for housing. So far, on-demand streaming has proved pandemic-proof, and it seems recession-proof, so the only danger would be a collapse of the copyright system — and it’s hard to imagine how that would happen, especially now that the music business survived illegal file-sharing. Outside investment in music rights will change, like everything else in the business, but it looks like we’re going to see steady, long-term change — most of which creators have good reason to be optimistic about.  

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