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Music | Opinion

The Big Topic: Will all major musicians stop owning their masters?

@josephtaysom

This week, The Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas became the latest artist to sell a stake in his back catalogue for big money. While he’s not the first major musician to take this path, Casablancas differs from those walking this line because, unlike Neil Young and Bob Dylan, he’s not a veteran in his autumnal years, and his act says a considerable amount about where the music industry is heading.

In December 2020, Bob Dylan sold the ownership rights of his songs to Sony for a reported fee of $300 million, and others soon began to follow suit, and not for the first time. A year later, Bruce Springsteen agreed to a deal with the same label for $550 million. Meanwhile, Neil Young, David Crosby, and Stevie Nicks have also cashed in on their life’s work.

As a musician entering their 70s or 80s, selling their back catalogue makes understandable sense, providing them with a monstrous lump sum of which they can wish to spend however they’d like. Up until now, the aforementioned artists have enjoyed their royalties trickle into a bank account for decades, and now, as they reflect on careers like no other, the artists have finally decided to cash in their chips and ride off into the sunset.

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However, Casablancas’ tale is a different story. The singer is still only 43 and, with his band enjoying a resurgence, has many decades ahead of him. Despite career optimism, The Strokes singer has concluded selling a portion of his songs is the right decision.

His deal with Primary Wave remains undisclosed after the company declined to specify precisely how much of a stake in the catalogue they had purchased or how much they paid in the deal. However, the sale gives the company access to some of The Strokes’ biggest tracks, including ‘Last Nite’, ‘Someday’ and ‘Reptilia’. Reportedly. the company bought a stake in Casablancas’s publishing rights and the songs’ master recordings. A representative for Primary Wave said the deal only includes Casablancas’s rights from The Strokes and does not include his external projects and collaborations.

Casablancas is currently touring Europe with The Strokes, which included planned festival appearances at Primavera Sound, NOS Alive, and Glasgow’s TRNSMT, for which he’ll be handsomely paid. Furthermore, when the indie stalwarts return to the States, they will then headline a series of huge outdoor dates. Seemingly, Casablancas isn’t in desperate need of money, and perhaps, the deal was evidently too good to refuse. If companies such as Primary Wave are willing to pay such substantial funds, then more younger artists will soon follow and sign off their pensions.

While the offers might appear irresistible, there’s only one good reason why a company like Primary Wave or Sony would pay such an exorbitant fee: they strongly believe that a major profit on their initial outlay is viable.

Considering ‘Someday’ has already been used on television commercials by Heineken and TUI, it doesn’t particularly matter if Primary Wave chooses to make it the soundtrack for a crypto commercial. Furthermore, if the artists consent to the deal, there must be a good reason. 

Casablancas isn’t the only younger artist to spot the opportunity for a quick jackpot. Justin Timberlake also recently sold his repertoire for $100 million, as he continues to accrue a mouthwatering fortune, and more will undoubtedly soon follow the filthy rich pair. 

In truth, it speaks volumes about the state of the industry and how streaming has created a void left by sales. Artists look ahead to what appears to be a bleak future and, acting on their instincts, are deciding to cash out and let business experts monetise their back catalogues on their behalf.

Of course, major artists such as Timberlake or Casablancas have the luxury of selling their songs. However, less famous musicians don’t have this choice and cannot circumvent the tribulations of the streaming age so seamlessly. Like the rest of society, the gap between different levels of artists only looks to heighten, and this new trend offers the most famous a gold-encrusted safety blanket. 

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