Media, Entertainment and Sport

How Bruce Springsteen’s deal with Sony offers insight into the state of the music industry

Flea market in Barcelona with a Bruce Springsteen album.

Neither Springsteen nor Sony has commented on the deal. Image: Unsplash/ Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez

Courtney Vinopal
Breaking news reporter , Quartz
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  • Bruce Springsteen selling his music catalog to Sony for $500 million is reportedly the largest deal of its kind.
  • Although it’s not uncommon for artists to sell both their masters and publishing rights to their songs, the practice has become more frequent in recent years.
  • The change has been driven by the growth of streaming services and the reduction in an artists' royalties when compared to physical album sales.

Bruce Springsteen has reportedly sold the masters of his entire catalog, as well as the music publishing rights, to Sony Music. The combined deal, which was first reported by Billboard, is estimated to be worth $500 million. Sony now owns all of Springsteen’s original recordings as well as the intellectual property of the compositions.

The Boss is the latest in a long line of artists to sell their music rights as streaming eats away at musicians’ profits, but this appears to be an extraordinary transaction.

“It’s the biggest figure we’ve seen for an individual artist,” says Kriss Thakrar, a research consultant with the music industry research firm MIDiA. The reported deal is bigger than the $300 million Bob Dylan collected for the publishing rights to his entire catalog last December, as well as the sum paid by Concord music in April to buy 145,000 copyrights from Downtown music services, including songs by artists like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Marvin Gaye.

Neither Springsteen nor Sony has commented on the deal.

Springsteen deal represents a growing trend

In recent years, the dominance of streaming has prompted a number of big-name artists to sell the rights to their music. Royalties from streaming songs represent a fraction of what artists used to collect from physical album sales; meanwhile, streaming platforms brought in 10 times the revenue of physical sales in the US last year (pdf), according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

“Streaming stole my record money,” singer-songwriter David Crosby tweeted a few months before he sold both the masters and publishing rights to his entire music catalog for an undisclosed sum this March. “I have a family and a mortgage and I have to take care of them so it’s my only option.” Prince rejected most streaming platforms altogether because of his views of their business practices, and the lack of income for artists.

The pandemic further upended the music industry, as artists were unable to make money from live performances, and more investors started taking advantage of historically low interest rates to cash in on music rights. “If most of your money is coming from catalog and you’re not looking to break new hits, then selling your assets can do more than enough to set you up for the rest of your life, and cover the shortfall from a lack of touring,” says Thakrar.

In recent years a number of artists have inked similar deals to the one Springsteen just finalized, but they haven’t all been as expansive. Neil Young sold just 50% of the publishing rights to his songs to a UK investment firm in January, while Stevie Nicks sold a majority stake of her publishing catalog to the private company Primary Wave last December.

Springsteen is a standout acquisition because he has a huge catalog that spans 50 years as well as an enduring fandom and legacy, Thakrar says. Demand for such catalogs is high, but there is an “increasingly diminishing supply of artists willing to sell.” The competitive market, coupled with the entry of new players with more money to spend than a few years ago, “is naturally going to drive up the price.”

Have you read?

Will Springsteen re-record like Taylor Swift?

Although it’s not uncommon for artists to sell both their masters and publishing rights to their songs, the practice has become more frequent in recent years as the volume of deals has increased dramatically, says Thakrar. In securing Springsteen’s masters and publishing rights, Sony will now have more freedom to pursue licensing deals, while the songs will be entirely out of the Boss’s hands.

That doesn’t mean he can’t continue to make money. He’ll always be one the highest-earning musicians on tour, and though he’s given up his masters, Springsteen could consider re-recording his albums, as Taylor Swift has recently done with great success. She still owns her publishing rights, and now has a new set of masters. Unlike Springsteen, Swift didn’t own her old masters; her former manager Scooter Braun bought them from record label Big Machine in 2019, before selling them on for a reported $300 million to an investment fund last year.

“I doubt Bruce Springsteen had any intention of re-recording his masters in the first place,” Thakrar says. “But you can see with Taylor Swift how valuable the publishing is.”

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