The COVID-19 pandemic might have laid waste to music industry on a grassroots level, but it continues to be great news for one percenters like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. All three cashed in big time in 2021 by selling their back catalogs for millions. And by millions, we’re not talking numbers like 10, 20 or 30, but instead eye-popping megabucks.
As reported in Rolling Stone by former Forbes editor Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Springsteen earned a decidely un-blue collar-like US$590 million in 2021, with all but $40 million of that coming from selling both his master recordings and publishing copyrights to Sony.
Simon off-loaded his back catalog last year to Sony for US$260 million, with the deal including both solo work and recordings made as part of Simon & Garfunkel.
Originally part of the Los Angeles punk scene, the Red Hot Chili Peppers took home US$140 million by selling its catalog to UK investment and song management company Hipgnosis. Sunset Strip hair metal survivor Mötley Crüe meanwhile proved they aren’t as dumb as they look by turning over their master recordings to BMG for $95 million.
For the curious, not everyone who made megamillions in 2021 did it by signing away their life’s work. Jay-Z’s financial empire grew by US$470 million after selling 50 percent of his Armand de Brignac champagne company to the luxury-brand-fixated conglomerate LVMH, and then cashing out 80 percent of his stake in the streaming service Tidal.
The man formerly known as Kanye West and Yeezy—and still famous as Rap’s Biggest Jackass—meanwhile saw his bank account grow by US$250 million, that thanks largely to his Ye-brand footwear business.
But it’s the back-catalog business that’s of most interest here. Top artists have been signing away their work for reasons tied into taxes (royalty cheques have a bigger bite taken out of them than the capital gains made by selling one’s catalog of songs).
Sign the rights to your life work away, and you come out ahead at tax time. But—and this can be huge—you no longer have a say in how your songs are used.
One of Johnny Cash’s greatest accomplishments was that he never suffered the indignity of seeing “Ring of Fire” used in an ad for Louisiana Hot Sauce, Patak’s Lime Pickle, or Professor Phardtpounders Colon Cleaner. (As an interesting side note, a Florida-based ad agency lobbied hard in 2004 to use “Ring of Fire” in an ad for hemorrhoid ointment, to which Cash’s daughter Roseanne stated “It’s a painful love song, most definitely not written for hemorrhoids.”).
Once upon a time, there was a stigma to using one’s work to help hawk automobiles, beer, hamburgers, or processed cheese. In some ways the needle has moved a bit on that today thanks to the likes of Iggy Pop, whose street-cred rating remains a blue-chip one. Recall, if you will, the former Stooge’s drug-addiction-ode “Lust For Life” being used in a Royal Caribbean Cruises commercial (thus sparking the Onion story “Song About Heroin Used To Advertise Bank”).
And while four-out-of-five idiot Android users will likely disagree, Apple’s iPhone has earned endless cool points for spotlighting artists that aren’t so much under the radar as right off it. Admit it—despite the best efforts of Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth, you’d never actually heard a Daniel Johnston song until “Story of an Artist” was used by Apple in 2018..
But whether you’re talking Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Runaway” surfacing in a Calvin Klein ad, the Knife's "Heartbeats" selling Bravia TVs, or Matt & Kim’s “Daylight” popping up in a Bacardi ad, those placements were green-lighted by the artists who wrote the songs.
Springsteen, Simon, the Peppers, and even Mötley Crüe are about to discover that every deal has a very possible, and possibly horrific, downside.
Imagine being the Boss of everything for the better part of six decades, and then suddenly being faced with hearing “Ramrod” in a Viagra commercial. Or “Tunnel of Love” soundtracking a Tampax ad. Or “I’m on Fire” in a spot for Anusol.
Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” is pretty much guaranteed to appear in an Astroglide ad, and Mötley Crüe probably deserves the indignity of hearing “Flush” when it’s inevitably used to hawk Charmin toilet paper.
As for the Peppers, the possibilities are endless for “I Like Dirt”: get in line Coit carpet cleaners, Hoover vacuums, Lysol Kitchen Wipes, and Huggies diapers.
With touring—and all the economic benefits that come from it—still mostly off the table at the beginning of 2022, the music industry might be in tatters, but a whole new world has opened up for the one percenters. Somewhere Johnny Cash is laughing, and not just because he never had to hear “The Blizzard” in a Head & Shoulders, Dairy Queen, or Uncut Organic Columbian Cocaine™ commercial.