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Bob Dylan Sells Songwriting Catalog In 9-Figure Deal

Dec 8, 2020
Originally published on December 8, 2020 1:28 am

Nearly 60 years after writing such counterculture classics as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Like a Rolling Stone," Bob Dylan has sold his entire songwriting catalog — more than 600 songs — to Universal Music Publishing Group in a deal announced Monday morning by Universal.

The agreement was first reported by The New York Times, which said it is worth more than $300 million. The deal with Dylan may be the highest price ever paid for a musician or group's songwriting rights. (Universal has not disclosed the purchase price.)

For Universal Music Publishing Group, which is owned by the French media giant Vivendi, there's a lot of appeal in owning Dylan's songwriting rights. The company will collect money any time another musician covers any of those songs, and it will earn revenue for allowing the songs to be used in commercials and movies as well as when the songs are streamed, sold commercially on such formats as CDs, or broadcast.

Songwriting rights — that is, ownership of a song's melody and lyrics — are figured and paid out separately from recording rights. According to Universal, Dylan's songs have already been recorded by other artists more than 6,000 times, including such famous versions as Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower" and Guns N' Roses' version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

The Universal deal includes all of the 79-year-old artist's songs, stretching back to his earliest compositions up to those recorded on his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, which was released in June. In all, Universal said, Dylan has sold more than 125 million records around the world.

Dylan is one of the most widely honored songwriters of all time, winning both a special citation Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and a Nobel Prize in literature in 2016.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly 60 years ago, Bob Dylan was writing counterculture classics that protested the establishment - "Blowin' In The Wind," "Like A Rolling Stone" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'”)

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen. And keep your eyes wide. The chance won't come again.

SHAPIRO: Well, this morning, the mega-establishment Universal Music Publishing Group announced that it has purchased the songwriting rights to all of Dylan's music for reportedly more than $300 million. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas reports this is perhaps the biggest songwriting deal ever made.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Bob Dylan is no stranger to big commercial deals. Over the years, he's hawked everything from Pepsi to Victoria's Secret lingerie to Chobani yogurt in an ad involving a marauding bear and a convenience store.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DYLAN: (Singing) I want you. I want you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR GROWLING)

DYLAN: (Singing) Yes, I want you so bad.

TSIOULCAS: Now Dylan has sold more than 600 songs written over nearly 60 years to Universal, stretching from his 1960s classics to the songs on his most recent album "Rough And Rowdy Ways," which was released this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “FALSE PROPHET”)

DYLAN: (Singing) I search the world over for the holy grail. I sing songs of love. I sing songs of betrayal.

TSIOULCAS: Making a nine-figure deal is obviously good for Dylan's bottom line, but what's the upside for Universal that was worth shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars? Mark Tavern, an artist manager who teaches music business at Connecticut's University of New Haven and LaGuardia Community College in New York, says Universal must have done the math with hopes that it will earn back more than it paid.

MARK TAVERN: It's going to represent a big, big acquisition for them and a big jewel in the catalog that they oversee.

TSIOULCAS: Tavern says this means that Universal can now reap income from Dylan songs in multiple ways.

TAVERN: Print, which is like sheet music; mechanical royalties, which is what the songwriter gets when their songs are recorded on CDs or vinyl or streamed; there is sync income, which is the money that gets paid when those compositions are put in a movie or on TV; and there is public performance, which is the money that's collected when those songs are performed, whether by Bob Dylan or by anyone else.

TSIOULCAS: According to Universal, Dylan's songs have already been recorded by other artists more than 6,000 times, ranging from Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along The Watchtower"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER”)

JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) All along the watchtower, princes kept the view.

TSIOULCAS: ...To Guns N' Roses' version of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “KNOCKIN' ON HEAVEN'S DOOR”)

GUNS N' ROSES: (Singing) Knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door.

TSIOULCAS: Dylan is one of the most widely celebrated songwriters of all time, whose lofty achievements include winning a special citation Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and a Nobel Prize in literature in 2016. With the Universal deal, the money is doing the talking, and Mark Tavern says that's not new.

TAVERN: Bob Dylan is actually very savvy about the value of the songs that he's created, the value in his catalog, and has now found a way to actually extract some cash value, some financial value from that that he'll be able to put in his own pocket.

TSIOULCAS: So keep an ear out for even more ads featuring Bob Dylan songs. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “I THREW IT ALL AWAY”)

DYLAN: (Singing) I must have been mad. I never knew what I had until I threw it all away. Love is all there is. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.