February 12, 2024
As background music experts, we understand the value of music. And, seemingly, so do some of the world’s biggest artists – with many opting to trade the rights to their tunes for an early pay day. Icons can save a hefty amount in tax by capitalising sooner rather than later.
Today, more and more musicians from eras gone by are cashing in, as well as those still topping the charts, making hundreds of millions selling the rights to their songs. Most recently, Sony Music Group is understood to have paid at least $600m (£475m) for half of Michael Jackson's catalogue.
But which artists are making the most from their back catalogue sales?
To find out, we looked at reports of how much back catalogues were sold for, covering some of the biggest names in music history. We also looked at trends in the rankings to identify how factors like gender, age and time in the industry can affect the value of these bumper sales.
So, what did we find?
The artists who have sold their back catalogues for the highest amount of money are predominantly men, with just one female artist - Tina Turner - securing a spot in the top five most expensive back catalogues of all-time.
It's still more common for older artists to cash in, even though some younger artists like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry are doing so. Some suggest this is because they're able to make more from selling off their music than they can through royalties, like when their tunes are played on the radio or in stores.
Most recent entry into the top 10 highest music back catalogue sales of all time is also now number 1 - Michael Jackson. Although the figure is disputed, it's reported that Sony Music Group paid at least $600m for just half of his catalogue, meaning the singer's musical assets are worth more than $1.2bn (£950m).
Music icon Bruce Springsteen is second on the chart, selling his catalogue of 300 songs for a hefty estimated $500 million, including classics like Born in the USA and Born to Run.
Third place is tied three ways between Phill Collins (alongside Genesis bandmates Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks), Bob Dylan and Tina Turner, each selling their song rights for a reported $300 million.
The three Genesis musicians have been active for 55 years and, although the artists are all in their 70s, their popularity continues. They recently concluded a world tour and have a combined 8.5 million followers on Spotify.
Bob Dylan’s back catalogue was sold to Universal Music Group in 2020. It’s reported 600 of his songs were included in the sale, including Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Like a Rolling Stone. Dylan has continued to make music following the sale of his back catalogue and embarked on a tour in 2021.
The Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Tina Turner, sold her catalogue of music spanning five decades in 2021. Sadly passing away in 2023, Turner was the oldest live artist in the study to sell her back catalogue.
Aside from Michael Jackson, the only other artist in the top ten whose back catalogue was sold after their death is David Bowie. He passed away in 2016, and his music was sold to Warner Chappell Music last year for a reported $250 million. The catalogue included music from his five decades of work – including the album Toy, which was released posthumously.
In 8th place is pop princess Katy Perry, who recently sold her catalogue, including five of her albums released between 2008 and 2020 featuring 16 multi-platinum singles.
Canadian pop sensation, Justin Bieber, has the 9th most expensive music back catalogue in history, joint with American singer-songwriter Ryan Tedder – the lead vocalist of the rock band OneRepublic.
Bieber’s Spotify popularity is the highest of the musicians and bands studied, with over 73 million followers which may have helped push up the sale price.
Royalties vs Rights
One of the biggest deciding factors for artists considering cashing in on the rights to their music is whether the lump sum payment outweighs the royalties they receive whenever their songs are streamed.
Streaming music isn’t free – for personal listeners or businesses boosting buying habits with tailored tunes (it’s true – the behavioural science behind music proves playlists influence customers). While solo streamers pay for popular music platforms, businesses must also own a music license to play in public.
So, musicians make money each time their songs are streamed, whatever the setting. The question, therefore, is whether these regular royalties are more or less valuable than a one-off sale of their rights.
And as we’ve found in our study, this is likely to be influenced by age, personal circumstance and how much record labels and investors are willing to pay!
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