Music

It’s Not About the Equity, Baby: Griping About Private Equity Buying Music Catalogs Misses the Point

If you believe everything you read — and the state of U.S. politics suggests that, unfortunately, many people do — private equity has replaced money as the root of all evil. The truth, as usual, is a bit more complicated.

The latest piping hot take comes from The New York Times opinion section, in a piece that argues that “private equity is destroying our music ecosystem.” (No, not the ecosystem!) The problem seems to be that private equity, which often loads companies up with debt and can be unrealistic in its goals for returns — this much is true, although it’s not clear that public companies or other sources of capital are better — is “gobbling up the rights for old hits and pumping them back into our present.” This sounds downright grotesque, what with the gobbling and the pumping and so on, but it’s really just an ostentatious way to say that companies with money are buying creators’ rights as an investment.

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This is bad for the ecosystem, the Times says, because the investors behind these deals — the most prominent example in the piece is Primary Wave’s purchase of 50% of Whitney Houston’s music and other rights — promote the songs they own in a way that somehow squeezes out new music. If that’s the case, though, they’re doing a terrible job of it. In 2023, a full 48% of U.S. on-demand audio streaming came from music released between 2019 and 2023, according to Luminate. A Billboard analysis of 2021 music consumption in the United States showed that music from after 2010 accounted for 78.7% of on-demand streaming, music released in or after 2000 accounted for 90% and all music recorded before 1980 accounted for fewer streams than Drake.

This idea that new music is losing ground to old songs seems to come from a misunderstanding of catalog music, which consists of tracks released more than 18 months ago. The market share of catalog has never been higher — it was 72.6% last year, up from 65.1% in 2020, and it was much lower before streaming took off. But while many people associate catalog with classic rock — AC/DC, the Eagles and the ’60s and ’70s acts that dominated the category in the CD era — that’s an outdated idea. The music that drives this category isn’t that “deep catalog,” but rather what many executives call “shallow catalog” — releases from the last five or 10 years, often from artists who are still active. Some journalists see the size of some private equity deals and jump to the conclusion that classic rock is killing new music. Even by music business standards, though, this is bad math. When it comes to on-demand streaming, Drake isn’t only bigger than the Beatles — he’s more popular than all the music from the ’60s, plus the ’70s and the ’50s, combined.

The Times opinion essay gets the trend backward: Private equity doesn’t make songs popular, it buys songs that are steady in the popularity they already have. Even before music streaming got big, some investors realized that classic songs generate steady royalties that are far less vulnerable to market cycles than most assets. U.S. songwriters got more interested in selling their rights after 2006, when the IRS began to treat income from catalog sales as a capital gain, which is subject to a lower tax rate than personal income from publishing royalties. Streaming simply smoothed out the peaks and valleys of reissue revenue into predictable returns that appeal to investors — especially for songs that have stood the test of time.

Although private equity invests in song catalogs, it rarely manages them, and most of the executives who do come from the music business. (At least some of what they do now is not so different from what they did then.) For that matter, most of the ways the opinion piece says investors are “building extended multimedia universes around songs” aren’t quite as new as they seem. The Monkees and Alvin and the Chipmunks were both “multimedia universes” in their day, as was Tom T. Hall’s “Harper Valley PTA,” a country hit (for Jeannie C. Riley) that inspired a movie, a TV show, Spanish and Norwegian translations, and a sequel song. Nicki Minaj built her hit “Super Freaky Girl” around Rick James’ “Super Freak” — with encouragement from the 50% owner Hipgnosis Songs Fund, according to the Times — but James’ song was the basis for a hit back in the CD era. Remember “U Can’t Touch This?” Hammer time?

The radical thing about on-demand streaming is that most of the music ever made is now easily available, in a way that its popularity can be measured by consumption rather than purchase. And it has become clear that music from the last few years is more popular with listeners than industry executives thought, especially relative to brand-new and older music. When older songs do blow up big on streaming services, it often has less to do with promotion than serendipity — Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” returned to the Hot 100 in 2020 after a TikTok video of a skateboarder went viral and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill hit No. 3 two years later after Stranger Things music supervisor Nora Felder decided it would be the perfect song to use as a plot device. And although many adults consider those songs classics, one reason they became hits again is that, from the perspective of younger fans, they are new. Isn’t this a good thing?

There are plenty of problems with streaming, including its low payments to most creators and the difficulty of breaking new acts. But neither of these has anything to do with private equity — the first comes from the way royalties are distributed and the reluctance of consumers to pay more for subscriptions, while the latter has more to do with how hard it is to stand out amid the sheer volume of new music that comes online every day. More serious discussion about these issues is important, but lamenting the fact that important creators earn so much money for the rights to their work isn’t the right way to start it.

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