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By Rich Woodall, The Baffler | “Ain’t singin’ for Pepsi / Ain’t singin’ for Coke / I don’t sing for nobody / Makes me look like a joke.” So goes the first verse of Neil Young’s 1988 hit “This Note’s for You.” In the second verse, this shitlist expands to cover Miller, Bud, politicians, and Spuds, the latter referring, of course, to Bud Light’s late-eighties canine mascot Spuds MacKenzie, rather than the humble and blameless potato. I suppose I’d always interpreted these lines as a sample of the wide range of stuff Neil Young is unwilling to sing for, implying a more general indictment of pop music’s increasingly shameless integration with advertising and corporate branding. I never presumed there was a corresponding list of business interests he would sing for, but what do you know? There is, and it includes Morgan Stanley, Brewin Dolphin, BNY Mellon, and the investment arm of the Church of England.

All of the above are investors in Hipgnosis Songs Fund Limited, a UK-based “song management” company creating shareholder value by buying and exploiting the copyrights to successful music catalogs. At the start of this year, they paid around $150 million to acquire 50 percent of Neil Young’s publishing rights. Now, every time we purchase or stream one of his songs, half the royalties that would previously have gone to Young as songwriter are instead paid out to Hipgnosis. Quite simply, Hipgnosis and its backers are now part owners of Neil Young. When he sings, they make bank.

But it isn’t really fair to single out Young for ridicule. We’re living through the Götterdämmerung of the rock-and-roll era. Faced with the exigencies of estate planning, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, and Paul Simon have all elected to cash in their catalogs and ascend to a higher plane of megawealth. The sums on offer from Hipgnosis and other firms can easily be dispersed among heirs, invested in property and stocks, or used to build an extremely fancy sarcophagus. All a songwriter has to do in return is hand over their life’s work to a gang of grinning suits. This deal is so compelling that even younger artists are taking it up. When a songwriter like Joel Little (Lorde, Taylor Swift) or Andrew Watt (Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus) sells out to Hipgnosis, they are trading away decades of potential future income in return for a lump sum. This money will spend regardless of whether anyone is still listening to their stuff in the grim darkness of the later twenty-first century, a risk now shouldered wholly by the buyer and their investors.

Indeed, the entire business model of Hipgnosis and their competitors rests on the counterintuitive idea that the songs we’re listening to today will sustain (or even improve) their currency well into the distant future. Bob Dylan may have received the official stamp of timelessness from the Nobel committee, but does this really mean that today’s teenagers will be listening to “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” in 2041? How much would you bet? Well, Hipgnosis has spent almost $2 billion over three years to acquire its roster of some sixty-five thousand tracks, vying with traditional music publishers and major record labels for control of the most valuable catalogs. Billions of dollars are flowing into the industry—and barely a cent is going toward the creation of new music. Instead, this money is being spent securing ownership of intellectual property which may, for all we know, be to future generations what fifties lounge music is to us today.
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Long but VERY informative article. Read the whole thing here:
https://thebaffler.com/outbursts/the-masters-own-you-woodall

Thanks so much to Jamie Krutz for contributing this article! Http://www.jamiekrutz.com

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