High-profile catalogue sales give new meaning to ‘you can get that for a song’
“Scrambled eggs.” As we sat in the rotunda of the old Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, the day before he was to receive the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, that was the origin story Paul McCartney was offering for the song we have all come to know as “Yesterday.”
I thought he was “taking the piss,” as the Brits like to say, particularly as Macca always had that little smile sneaking up the corners of his mouth. Yeah, sure, scrambled eggs. Then I watched “Get Back” and realized he was telling the truth, as evidenced by cooking up the eponymous hit song in the space of a few on-camera minutes starting from scratch, like you’d whip up a batch of … scrambled eggs. That cat could really cook up a commercial hit.
So it was no longer shocking when the Boss unloaded all his music last month for upwards of half-a-billion dollars. Bruce Springsteen was merely following in Bob Dylan’s footsteps once again. The Bard of Hibbing had netted more than $300 million the previous December for his song publishing rights alone. Unlike Springsteen, Dylan hung on to his recorded music, as he enjoyed selling it to Victoria’s Secret, Cadillac and other intimations that the ’60s are really dead.
While you and I struggle to pay Uncle Sam, Santa brings savings via capital gains versus income tax to performers who choose to surrender their legacies to the last remaining music giants like Sony and Universal. And it isn’t just the Mount Rushmore singer-songwriters such as Neil Young and Paul Simon joining the stampede. Other sellouts include femme fatales Tina Turner, Shakira and Stevie Nicks, as well as bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, ZZ Top and Motley Crüe. Records don’t sell anymore, and the pandemic has put the squeeze on touring, so the legacy acts and their accountants are heading for the exits.
Since the brakes are off the runaway train of songs for sale to the highest bidder, I’m imagining the future use of many of my favorite tracks. Dylan was just a few decades too soon when he named his third album “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” I finally got him to sing that in the White House in 2010, almost a half-century a-later. And a decade after that, he sold the song. So the following are only as farfetched as payment in Bitcoin or NFTs, which could well be how they’ll be getting paid.
“Bourne in the USA” and “Bourne to Run” title sequences for the next two Jason Bourne movies, even though the Boss put an asterisk on these gems. “Sounds of Silence” noise-cancelling Beats headphones to wear in your autonomous Tesla. “Little Red Corvette” so you can see the USA in your Chevrolet, even though I doubt it’s the metaphor Prince had in mind. “A Hard Day’s Night” for, ahem, performance-enhancing drugs. “Hotel California” for an immigration attorney’s billboards on the freeway south of San Diego. “Fire and Rain” for that pesky Gecko.
It’s amazing the wonderful world of exploitation unleashed by the transfer of intellectual property rights to corporate America. The pending Ukrainian national anthem “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Martha Stewart bakes “American Pie.” Ban Roll-On product integration with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The painkiller jingle “Stayin’ Aleve.” Imagine the sales boost for Eliquis once it touts “You’re So Vein.” Take that, snake venom blood-thinners!
One thing is for sure, as Dylan sang “We live in a political world,” we can count on Trump’s 2024 campaign walk-on anthem “Love the Way You Lie.” Deep in the heart of Texas, Greg Abbott will have “Baby Love” when the Supreme Court decides to Roe his boat. And in Virginia, the donkeys will try again to swing back the state with “Kind of Blue” and all that jazz.
Having worked with Mick Jagger, and faced him down when he tried to ramble a fast one past me one midnight at the W Hotel, I’m thinking I try to buy “Moves Like Jagger” if I ever start a podcast. Not to worry. If I have a face for radio, I think I have vocal chords for print. Then again, in a world where money can buy anything, including artistic integrity — now there’s a misnomer — there are doubtless lots of others who’ll want to hawk their wares to “Like a Rolling Stone.”
We’ve come a long way, baby, from the days when Neil Young, pre-sale, could mock “This Note’s for You.” But marriage to Daryl Hannah racks up the bills. And since Citizens United persuaded the Supremes that corporations are people, too, maybe I’m wrong to doubt the ethics of the musical carpetbaggers. Bowie’s legacy got scarfed up, so Elon Musk can launch with “Space Oddity.” Maybe he’ll see David up there. Life on Mars indeed.