By the mid-1980s there were a handful of major music publishers
: Warner, Chappell & Co., CBS Songs, and EMI. This relatively new oligopoly holds roots in the 1960s when music executives and labels lined with deep pockets began an accelerated trajectory of collecting small publishers. Not yet even a billion-dollar industry, Freddy Bienstock, a former song plugger that helped place songs on Elvis Presley’s films, started picking up song catalogs in the mid-60s. Bienstock was subject to a 1985 New York Times profile
, which talks about how he, along with Rodgers & Hammerstein estates and investment firm Wertheim & Co., purchased the Edward B. Marks catalog
for $5 million a couple of years prior. The tension between artists, managers, and labels over these rights goes back to the top of the 20th century, but finance entering this already-fraught relationship pushed artists further away from the bargaining table and put more money in the pocket of spend-ready firms. (A high profile mid-century example of this was when ATV Music Publishing, a part of the British television company Associated Television, bought Northern Songs, which controlled a majority of the Beatles’ catalog.)
$100 million is the price tag that announced a new era of money in music publishing. In 1984, Wertheim & Co. got the crew back together with Bienstock and the Hammerstein estate to buy Chappell (then the world’s largest music publisher) from Polygram. The product of Dutch and German conglomerates, Polygram bought Chappell from its original family owners in 1968. The Wertheim purchase followed a Federal Trade Commission blocked
attempted merger between Polygram and Warner Music in March. Wertheim’s investment group’s ownership would be brief, as three years later Warner would purchase Chappell
off their hands for $200 million. CBS, burdened with sudden debt after Ted Turner’s failed takeover, let go of CBS Songs to SBK Entertainment
for $125 million, only for Thorn-EMI to purchase the company for $337 million three years later. The constant swapping shows that James Harmon, then Wertheim Vice Chairman, understood the direction his business nudged the industry in when speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1985
Some people see music publishing as a dull, nickel-and-dime business because publishers collect very modest royalty sums from thousands of copyrights they own or administer all over the world…We saw a business that was consistent, with many different and stable sources of revenues, that didn’t have the volatility of the other more glamorous areas of the entertainment industry, which didn’t require heavy spending and which was only going to increase with the new changes in the delivery of music, namely music videos and compact discs.
The 80s saw multi-million purchases for catalogs suddenly become the norm. In 1985, the Michael Jackson Estate bought ATV Music for $47.5 million, mostly for the Beatles catalog. Sony, after purchasing CBS Records, wanted to expand into publishing, but since CBS already sold its publishing arm, the Japanese company bought Tree International Publishing for $30 million
. This was the last country music publisher that was still run out of Nashville, as smaller firms had been bought out over the prior couple of decades. The 80s closed with a game of publisher musical chairs with nearly everyone seeing a new corporate owner every couple of years with higher and higher price tags attached to successive purchases.
The 90s and the 00s big-name purchases didn’t slow down. In 1995, Sony bought half of ATV Music from the Jackson estate for $110 million, more than double what Jackson paid for the company a decade prior. MCA Publishing merged with Polygram in 1998 to create Universal Music Group Publishing, which bought Bertelsmann Music Publishing in 2006, making them the largest music publisher. The price inflation extended to even smaller catalogs, as Berry Gordy sold half of Motown’s publishing to EMI in 1997 for $132 million
. The message for anyone with a decent catalog was that there were plenty of buyers ready to take it off your hands for a high price. A decade later, private equity firm Terra Firma bought EMI and after a disastrous few years of management, sold off EMI’s publishing wing to the Jackson Estate and Mubadala Investment Company in 2012. Harmon’s might’ve been correct in calling publishing ‘unglamorous’ but he did, along with a number of others in the 80s, figure out a way to at least raise the number of commas next to deals they were signing.
The consolidation of major players within publishing didn’t mean that there was no space for smaller firms. The Hipgnosis Fund, founded in 2018 by Merck Mercuriadis, along with Niles Rodgers,
raised over $800 million for the purpose of rounding up popular song rights. Variety reported last fall
that they were still on the hunt for smaller publishers to buy. There’s also the newer private equity music groups
like Round Hill Music, Lyric Capital Group, or even Tempo Music Group, a collaboration between Warner Music Group and Providence, which are all trying to buy up the loose song rights that are still out there.
The 80s dreams of getting Wall Street money into music’s most stable source of money generation arrived. Mercuriadis said to Variety last year
regarding the value of songs echoing Harmon in the mid-80s: “They are the currency that makes the world go round. They are predictable and reliable and they are better than gold or oil. We have lined up the finest available song catalogues and will be deploying them immediately.” The financialized nature of music publishing reached a new zenith in 2018 when Music Business Worldwide reported that Sony/ATV owns part of Tencent Music Entertainment
. A publisher owning part of a company that does music distribution is all but normalized when Warner Music Group’s owner Access Industries owns parts of Spotify and Deezer. Of course, the industry figured out a way to make more money, everyone’s on the same team! (I jest.)