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Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift and Rihanna have bought back the rights to their music, while Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Dr. Dre have sold theirs. What in the world is going on?

When a musician sells their catalog, it means they’re selling the rights to their songs, including the royalties paid when their music is consumed and used. Under a record contract, copyright and related rights are distributed between the artist and the record company. Sales of music catalogs have traditionally been made to industry multinationals, such as Universal or Sony Music. Since the 2020s, however, investment funds have also been buying up these catalogs, driving up their value. While the number of catalog sales continues to rise, artists such as Dua Lipa are buying back their own music and regaining control of their rights.

Taylor Swift Speak Now Tour in Sydney, Australia in 2012 (photo by Eva Rinaldi on Flickr).

Certainty of cashing-in when selling

When a musician sells their catalog, they are certain of the amount they will receive. Their income does not depend on the popularity of their titles over time, or on potential future crises in the music industry. The advantage for the seller is the generation of immediate income, which can be substantial depending on the popularity of the titles in the catalog being sold.

As in real estate, there are good times to sell and bad. During the COVID-19 crisis, for artists who weren't generating income from cancelled tours, it was a good time to sell as they benefited from the increased value of their catalogs due to investor interest.  In 2020, Bob Dylan sold part of his rights to over 600 songs to Universal for an estimated sum of several hundred million dollars. Since then, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Dr. Dre and even Justin Bieber have made similar deals. Under the copyright system, people who hold the rights to a creative work retain control of the creation for up to 70 years after the death of the original creator, depending on the country. By selling during their lifetime, the creator can effectively transfer this expected future income to the present.

So why are musicians buying back their own catalogs?

Artists regain control of their rights and income

The benefit for musicians to buy back their catalogs is not only financial. When artists own their music, they have the power to decide how their work is used and have a say in the artistic direction during the recording of their music.

Jay-Z live at Oslo Spektrum - October 23, 2013 (photo by NRK P3 on Flickr).

Almost twenty years ago, Jay-Z bought the rights to his masters. Other artists have since followed suit, including Rihanna in 2016, Zara Larsson in 2022, and Dua Lipa in 2023. When Taylor Swift’s former label sold her first six albums without her agreement, she re-recorded the albums and became the owner of the new versions, which have quickly become more popular than the originals on streaming platforms. She has since signed with a new label on condition that she retains ownership of all future recordings.

Taylor Swift's story is widely known thanks to social networks and the mass media, which allow information to circulate rapidly. In response to this phenomenon, major labels are inserting new clauses into contracts stipulating that artists cannot re-record tracks for a period of up to 30 years.

Circulating information for the benefit of artists

With artists' awareness of their rights on the rise, more and more publishing houses are offering contracts under which they no longer own the recordings, but exclusive licenses linked to them. Alternatively, they may retain ownership of the recordings for a given number of years before the artist reclaims his or her rights. Kylie Minogue, for example, has entered into such an agreement, where ownership of the recordings reverts to her after a certain number of years.

Musicians today can better learn and understand their rights. The World Intellectual Property Organization and the Music Rights Awareness Foundation have created a free online platform, CLIP, to help creators learn about their intellectual property rights. Find out more information on goclip.org.