On the heels of the passing of bassist Dusty Hill in July, the remaining members of Texas based ZZ Top have sold their back catalog. The deal between the band and both record label BMG and investment firm KKR is worth $50 million dollars. The package comprises publishing rights and royalties from both recorded and performed music.
Sales of recorded music have been in a nosedive since the nineties. With the digitization of music, artists have dealt with threats to their income like illegal duplication through file sharing. As most royalty income today originates from streaming services, these payments pale in comparison to the golden age of record sales.
Artists have had little choice but to tour relentlessly. As the Covid-19 pandemic has brought live performances to an abrupt halt, one remaining alternative for artists to secure their livelihoods is the sale of their back catalog. Gone are the days when musicians entertaining such notions would be accused of selling out.
Recent luminaries who have sold rights to their music library include Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Bob Dylan. Sting and the estate of David Bowie are reportedly in talks for similar deals.
While fans are accustomed to hearing their favorite artists' songs in commercials, film and TV, the specter of corporate control over creative art puts popular music in uncharted territory. How much social activism in songwriting can listeners expect if an artist's work is corporate owned? Would this signal the end of protest music? Rock and folk are deeply rooted in rebellion.
Making a living from art alone has always been fraught with risk and uncertainty. As long as we have a pandemic to restrict us from large gatherings, recording artist incomes will suffer. Can the creation of new music be incentivized in these conditions?
Writers and directors like Margaret Atwood and David Mamet have diversified their income through teaching. Music lovers can hope that a technological solution to artist incomes emerges. A world without new creative art and music sounds starkly dystopian.