The Canadian pop star Justin Bieber has become the latest songwriter to sell the rights to royalties from his catalogue of published tunes to an investment fund, following the likes of Bob Dylan and the late Leonard Cohen. Bieber’s deal is said to be worth about $200 million.
The songwriters “are selling the rights to their work – in other words, to collect royalties largely from streaming of their back catalogue,” Anya Wassenberg reports on the website Ludwig van Toronto. “About 70 percent of the music consumed today is older music,” making these songs, some decades old, valuable assets.
All the more valuable as lawmakers in various countries keep extending the periods of copyright protection. In this country, per the US Copyright Office, works “created and fixed in a tangible medium of expression” after Jan. 1, 1978, remain under copyright protection for the lifetime of the author or longest-living co-author, plus 70 years. The term of protection ranges from 70 to 120 years for works copyrighted before 1978.
If Bieber, who was born in 1994, lives 86 years (the current statistical life expectancy of male Canadians), the catalogue he has sold will remain under US copyright protection until 2150. Dylan is 81; if he were to die now, his pre-1978 works – the likely basis of his being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature – could remain under protection until 2143.
Now, it seems there’s a budding market for “music futures,” in which investors bet on tunes or musical genres likely to produce high royalty payments in years to come, Wassenberg reports. Clouty, a Chicago-based firm “re-imagining the value of music by making it a tradable asset,” last summer launched MUSIQ, a music-trading index that could be the basis of “an exchange-traded fund to make it easy for investors to jump into the game.”
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Gambling on whose current hits will be royalty-rich 20 or 30 years from now? That makes sports betting look pretty lame.
The rights to works of “classical” composers – in quotes because the definition is so open-ended now – are not as lucrative as those for pop songs, with the notable exceptions of some film and television scores. (Imagine the bidding war for the John Williams catalogue.)
Betting on a classical work’s future financial value is probably more speculative than it would be in pop. It’s certainly more long-term: Few pieces composed since the 1970s have entered the canon of widely acclaimed, regularly performed concert music or opera, thus generating reliable royalty income; so the bet is on a composer’s stature a generation or more in the future.
Classical and pop music have this in common: One generation’s hits and masterworks may be future generations’ historical novelties or hoary relics.
Had today’s copyright laws been in effect and a music-futures market been up and running in the 19th century, rights to Giacomo Meyerbeer’s then-popular operas would have been a hot commodity. Not so hot in 1934, 70 years after his death, and not even lukewarm by 1984, had post-mortem protection lasted 120 years. Conversely, rights to Anton Bruckner’s symphonies, rarely performed in his lifetime, would have skyrocketed in value. (The steady-income bet would have been Johann Strauss II.)
Care to bet on the royalty value of music by Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Arvo Pärt or Rodion Shchedrin, let alone compositions by younger fry such as Anna Clyne, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Mason Bates or Jessie Montgomery, in the 2080s? I wouldn’t – but, then, I don’t frequent roulette tables or buy lottery tickets.