Curated Insights 2020.01.24

The man who’s spending $1 billion to own every pop song

What Mercuriadis is doing with Hipgnosis isn’t so much innovative as it is opportunistic. With a fertile contact list from his decades as an artist manager, the ability to raise at least another billion from investors, and a healthy amount of hubris, he located an opening in the music industry and is going all-in on exploiting it. Ultimately, his goal with Hipgnosis — which went public on the London Stock Exchange in June 2018 — is to own 15% to 20% of the overall publishing market. “Everyone that writes songs today can be confident that the financial community understands that as these songs become proven, they are predictable and reliable,” Mercuriadis says.

When Spotify launched in 2008, Mercuriadis became intrigued by streaming music. Central to Spotify’s user experience was the ability to create personalized playlists by culling songs from all genres and artists. The start-to-finish thread of a full album was becoming less important to streaming adopters. In decades past, he observed, the majority of artists wrote their own songs. Kurt Cobain wrote all the lyrics and much of the music for Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind. Contrast that with Adele, who worked with 10 different songwriters for her 2015 smash, 25. “It became clear to me that the power was shifting from the artist to the songwriter,” Mercuriadis says. “But the songwriters weren’t in a position to reap the benefits.”

With Hipgnosis Songs Fund, Mercuriadis bypassed all of them. Songwriters are able to generate revenue from three sources: mechanical royalties (the sale or legal download of a song), performance royalties (paid every time a song is heard in public, whether it’s a live performance, on TV, or in a movie; played in a bar or restaurant; or streamed), and synch fees (song licensing for use in movies, video games, and commercials). Mechanical royalties are the only stream with a set rate; performance and synch royalties are negotiated percentages. Synchs are often more lucrative for the songwriter, since they generally split 50% for the writer and the artist, with the label taking its cut from the artist’s piece of the pie. Synch is where Hipgnosis Song Fund could make them money, as Mercuriadis explained to the 177 hedge fund and private investors he pitched between 2015 and 2018.

Today, the business operates like a cross between an investment fund and a talent management agency. While Mercuriadis brokers the catalog deals, each of his 19 employees is responsible for monetization opportunities for a portfolio of songs. He plans to at least double the number of people working for him this year. “I want to get rid of the word ‘publishing,’” he says. (His preferred description: “song management.”) “Major publishers have small staffs working with hundreds of thousands of songs. We’re shooting for thousands of songs and having synch managers who are each responsible for a much smaller amount,” he says. “We’ll make a lot more money than anyone else.”

Pincus acknowledges that Hipgnosis may have other deals in the works that would offset the high prices he’s paying — and indeed, Mercuriadis is working on diversifying beyond songwriter catalogs. The company just purchased the masters of UK band the Kaiser Chiefs, which gives it complete ownership of the recordings. Purchasing producers’ rights is another new point of emphasis. Mercuriadis bought Jeff Bhasker’s inventory (the Grammy’s 2016 Producer of the Year behind “Uptown Funk”), along with the entire 1,855-song output from Brendan O’Brien, best known for his work with Pearl Jam. There are also the merchandising possibilities: Mercuriadis’ yet-to-be-announced mega-deal with that iconic female artist reportedly includes, in addition to the thousands of songs the artist has written, the use of her image and likeness. This deal will cost Mercuriadis well into the nine figures but has the potential for him to eventually sell more T-shirts than the Gap.

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