Music Rights Are Surprisingly Cheap and Easy to Buy

When music rights make the news, it’s generally because a superstar’s entire catalog is selling for hundreds of millions of dollars. That may be why I always assumed that buying music rights would be difficult and expensive- that you’d both have to know the right people to even hear about potential deals, and have to be quite rich to afford them.

But this week I found out about Royalty Exchange, a site that currently lists hundreds of music rights for sale. They certainly appear to make the process of finding and buying rights, and collecting royalties, easy (I haven’t bought any yet so can’t say for sure). They currently list songs and partial catalogs from all sorts of artists you’ve heard of:

When I say I find many listings to be surprisingly cheap, I mean this relative to the hundred million dollar deals you hear about. Of those that offer a list price (as opposed to simply asking for offers), the vast majority are over $10,000, and many are over $100,000. Overall I’d put it in the “luxury car” bucket- expensive enough that its a bad idea for a normal middle-class person to buy one, but cheap enough that they could if they really wanted to. It’s a bit of a better idea than a luxury car, since its more investment than consumption. But if I actually bought the Flogging Molly catalog like I want to, I’d be taking an unnecessary risk by putting a large proportion of my net worth in a single investment. Their music is great and I think it will maintain its popularity, but if I’m wrong and people stop listening to it I’d lose out. So, for most people it’s a bad idea in the same way that putting half your retirement account into a single company’s stock is bad idea. But I’m surprised its even possible.

Why are these rights so affordable? Sometimes, of course, its because the artist isn’t that popular. But why are the rights to songs and musicians that are household names affordable? It seems to mainly be because the rights have been sliced and diced so that you’re only buying a small piece of them. Consider Miley Cyrus above. First of all its only the rights to one of her songs (admittedly a hit song). Second, you’re only buying the rights for ten years (lifetime rights are sometimes available but naturally they cost more). Finally, you’re only buying some of the rights, in this case the right to get paid when someone publicly performs the song (but not when someone streams it or buys a copy):

Even given all that though, I’m surprised how cheap the rights are. I expected that people would overpay for them because they like an artist, or for the bragging rights. But the yields seem pretty reasonable, often over 10%. Yields could rise or fall over time as an artist becomes more or less popular, or as the economics of the music industry change, but current prices generally seem justified by the income stream. I look forward to having enough money that this could make sense as an investment for me; I expect I might in 10 or 20 years, but maybe some of you are already there.

The cheapest listing from an artist I’ve heard of, Busta Rhymes (only performance rights, only certain tracks)