What’s That Sound?: Cashing In, Cashing Out

Music is personal. Perhaps there is something inherent in a work of art that is objective, qualities that exist without the benefit of the beholder, but we will never know for certain. All we have is perception and that is by nature, subjective. But apart from the subjective-objective dichotomy, what we can say without hesitation is that we as individuals each react to art in different ways; the more abstract, the more open art is to interpretation, the wider the array of emotions it can evoke, and the more personal and deeply held the feeling lives in the heart of the interpreter.

Music is generally recognized as the most abstract form of art and if that’s true, it can help to explain its power over us as individuals. Music hits all of us differently and we can each claim our reaction and relationship to it as our own. No one can tell you how to feel about a song or what it ultimately means. The music maker brings everything to bear that they can to the work but it’s the listener that endows their creation with meaning. It’s that kind of agency, participation, and personal investment that makes music fans so dedicated, rabid even.

So. If the power of music springs from its abstract nature, what explains the obsession to make it ever more concrete, to marry music with some kind of fixed imagery in the form of music videos, song placements in movies, and, gasp, licensed songs for commercials? I do see the need for artists to be remunerated for their works and I don’t begrudge anyone from making a living off of what they’ve created, but I really don’t get why we music lovers are so enthused to see our favorite songs placed so prominently and indelibly in memorable scenes from movies and TV shows. I for one cannot hear the piano coda to “Layla” without my mind’s eye seeing that brutal montage of shot-up corpses from whatever that Scorcese film was that it was licensed to, and I frankly, resent it. I love that piece of music in all of its abstract beauty and committed emotion and I don’t need the extra imagery, thanks.

Cards on the table — I may be a purist, I’m definitely a curmudgeon and certainly no fun, but I’ve never been a fan of music videos. In fact, part of me loathes them. When I listen to the music I love, I make my own movies in my head and they change according to my mood, my station in life, and my shifting relationship to the music. I prefer to avail myself of the abstract nature of sound and music and let it interact with my own imagination and the last thing I want to do is to marry a piece of music with one director’s one idea of what I should be envisioning, even if it’s the artist themself who is in charge of the imagery. Yes, I have trouble with a lot of music placements I see in film and television (unless it plays over black at the end of an episode), and don’t get me started on commercials. Even there I make exceptions, and I’m not starting any crusades, but I do have a philosophical opposition to this expending of music’s infinite potential and the dissipation of its inherent power through the cashing in on its essential currency — the inherently abstract nature of its form.

But enough about me and my futile objections. Let’s talk about everyone else’s.

“Take the Money and Run”

You may have heard the recent news of Bob Dylan selling his catalog of songs for hundreds of millions of dollars and on the heels of that news, that Neil Young had also sold half of his catalog, the copyrights and proceeds of those songs, to the company Hipgnosis (who subsequently also bought 100% of Lindsay Buckingham’s song catalog). It’s been a flood. David Crosby then sold his catalog to Irving Azoff’s company, Iconic Artists, who soon after purchased the rights to Linda Ronstadt’s music assets, and also, the rights to the iconic songs of the Beach Boys. Seems like every week has brought news of a new catalog sale.

What’s going on here? Well, like everything you encounter in music, it’s open to interpretation but I’ll give you my take.

First, it’s important to understand that music copyrights are holdings similar to real estate. They tend to appreciate over time, they produce passive income for the owner and, since a 2006 law passed by a Republican House and Senate and signed by George W. Bush, are designated in U.S. tax code as capital assets. That means that if an artist like Dylan was to sell his or her catalog under the current tax code, the sale wouldn’t be taxed as regular income, it would rather be subject to the much lower capital gains rate (which were lowered significantly during Trump’s tenure as president).
These sales have not been happening in a vacuum. Given the age of these artists and the likelihood of this very favorable tax situation not lasting too long into the Biden administration, many of them have seen the writing on the wall and have chosen now as the right time to convert their assets. Bob Dylan and Neil Young may have been lofty paragons of integrity all through their careers, but now they are confronted with that most mundane task — estate planning, a normal occurrence for anyone with the dual privileges of wealth and old age.

It’s hard to think about these heroes from an aspirational age in either of these terms, but it really isn’t any of our affair. The plain fact is that with an artist as significant and prolific as Bob Dylan, there are daily decisions to be made fielding requests, granting permissions and negotiating rates for licensing, for altering copyrights (when a foreign artist wants to translate a lyric, say), not to mention the planning, management, and approval of myriad reissues and new issues from his vault of recordings from a career spanning now over fifty years. The $300 million sale of his catalog of copyrights involves a lot more than simply cashing out. It’s a transfer of all of those tasks to a third party instead of saddling his heirs with that weight, not only of the day-to-day minutia but of the grand responsibility of upholding and the sacred Dylan legacy. That’s a lot of money, but the unique value has been there all along in these priceless songs; this is just a conversion of one kind of asset to another.

Democrats now hold the Presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress. The Progressive Caucus in the House are feeling their oats and are thankfully pushing the most liberal agenda this country has seen since Johnson’s Great Society and it has to be paid for somehow (and likely not on the backs of the middle class). This is the Democrats’ moment — the urgency to restore the commons and deliver for hard-working Americans is palpable, as is the urgency of our Aquarian heroes to convert their holdings before the tax rates go up. As a fan of irony, I can see the elusive humor in this. Even harder to laugh at is the grand cosmic joke — not that none of our heroes will survive the next phase, but that when they’re gone, we’ll be next.

Author’s note: On this, the day that this article was published, it was announced that Paul Simon has sold his entire song catalog to Sony Music Publishing for an undisclosed amount.

Exit Sign Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels