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THE GREAT CATALOG GOLD RUSH
SONG-MANAGEMENT MODEL THRIVING DURING TOUGH TIMES

If song catalogs are recession-proof, as publishing execs have posited over the years, they now appear to be pandemic-proof as well.

Sales of iconic catalogs haven’t slowed since the March lockdown: This week, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein’s Blondie songs became the latest acquisition by Merck MercuriadisHipgnosis Songs Fund, on the heels of the song-investment company’s pickups of the songs of Barry Manilow, Rodney Jerkins, Pusha T. Mark Ronson, Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora and RedOne. Hipgnosis also raised another $299.1m, its biggest equity increase to date.

“Our mantra is that proven songs produce predictable and reliable income and are a highly investable uncorrelated asset class that can rival gold,” Mercuriadis explained at the time. “In line with our current performance, we will do our utmost to continue to deliver strong results for our investors by buying extraordinarily successful proven songs by culturally important artists and managing them with great responsibility.”

Concurrently, Larry Mestel’s Primary Wave Music Publishing, one of the earliest adopters of this strategy, has acquired stakes in the publishing catalogs and master royalty streams of Ray Charles’ pre-1964 catalog, Air Supply, The Moody BluesJustin Hayward and Donny Hathaway, as well as an admin and marketing deal with Burt Bacharach, while buying Arnold Stiefel and Randy Phillips Gasoline Alley pubco in JV with UMPG.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic set in, the inability to tour has bolstered the marketplace for music royalties, already a hot spot for investors thanks to the popularity of streaming. As the Wall Street Journal noted in July, writers and writer/artists can sell or lease their rights, and there’s no shortage of buyers, with Sound Royalties—which operates like a bank, providing cash advances on future royalties—Hipgnosis and Primary Wave leading the way.

Catalog titles, seen as the safer investments, have seen prices go up: A songwriter's share of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” pulled in $203k, and a producer’s slice of REO Speedwagon, which recently received a PPP loan, on their hit 1980 album Hi Infidelity went for $179.5k.

“When you look at ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ or ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ consumption of these songs has gone through the roof during the pandemic,” Mercuriadis told the Journal.

“The world has finally recognized music rights as a sound alternative asset,” said Mestel in the same story. “The market was very strong before COVID for deals. It got even stronger because artists have a limited way of making money.”

Songwriters’ catalogs are receiving multiples of 10 to 18 times annual royalties, a rise from eight to 13 pre-coronavirus, the Journal reported. Loan deals are reportedly as low as $5k and can reach $10m; duration is anywhere from six months to five years.

“A core part of our thesis is that song revenues are uncorrelated as, whether in good times or challenged, music is always being consumed,” Mercuriadis recently observed. “While we would not have wished for a pandemic to demonstrate this, it has indeed done exactly that, and that has been reflected in our strong performance.”

While Merck and Mestel have mined the past for gold classics, the Big Three pubcos have focused on the present and future, as their shared mission statement mandates. During the last few months, Jody Gerson’s UMPG has inked stars Kenny Chesney and Luke Combs along with up-and-comers Brandi Carlile and Surfaces. Jon Platt’s Sony/ATV, meanwhile, has snagged newly minted star Rod Wave, hitmaker Labrinth, rising star BENEE, writer/producer DJ K.i.D. (DaBaby) and re-upped Tame Impala and Jon Pardi. And Guy Moot and Carianne Marshall’s Warner Chappell has brought in the late Pop Smoke, writer/artist Santigold, writer/producers Yeti Beats, (Doja Cat) and Sean Douglas, lured back Mike WiLL Made-It and re-signed U.K. breakout star Dave.

Although the majors have vast catalogs of their own, they’re not in the business of competing with Mercuriadis for catalogs. He’s playing a different game—and when he finds the right American pubco to acquire and establishes a U.S. operation, that will become even more apparent. (He’s believed to have kicked Pulse’s tires but apparently decided he didn’t want to finance the overhead of the L.A.-based indie pubco).

Even now, Hipgnosis, appears to be best-positioned to close deals going forward, with Primary Wave among its chief competitors. During Hipgnosis’ fiscal 2020, which ended 3/21, right at the start of the lockdown, the company acquired 42 song catalogs for £560m, raised £422.9m in new equity and had a Net Asset Value return of 17.7%. And Merck has kept the pedal to the metal since that pivotal moment.

 

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