Canadian businessman buys Neil Young song rights, aims for ‘best opportunities possible’ for Young

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Canadian music legend Neil Young has sold a half-stake in his song catalog to an investment company that specializes in using popular music for advertising. Ross Lord explains why such business deals get some music lovers worrying about their favourite artists' legacies. – Jan 10, 2021

Fans of Canadian music legend Neil Young are wondering what a massive business deal will mean for his songs.

Young has sold a half stake in his songs to British investment company Hipgnosis Songs Fund. Hipgnosis lets people invest in hit songs.

Company owner Merck Mercuriadis says it specializes in placing popular music in different settings with different products.

Read more: Neil Young sells 50% of his song catalogue to U.K. investment company

“Most of the big publishing houses have as many as 20,000 songs per person,” he said.

“We operate on a ratio of 500 to 1,000 songs per person. So we’re able to put more time and effort into putting the songs in movies, TV commercials, making sure that they’re on all the right playlists on Spotify and Apple and, you know, basically putting more into them in order to be able to get more out of them.”

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Merck Mercuriadis, Abbey Road 17-10-18 by Jill Furmanovsky. Hipgnosis Songs Fund

Like Young, Mercuriadis is Canadian. He was born in Quebec and grew up in Nova Scotia. He says he’s been a big fan of Young since childhood.

I’ve been listening to these records now for 50 years. I’m 57 years old and I bought Harvest when I was seven years old. You know, the reason why these records are so meaningful 50 years later is not just because the songs are great, but it’s because they have so much meaning. And his conduct is an important part of that meaning, that gravitas.”

He became friends with the late Eliot Roberts, Young’s manager, and with the singer-songwriter himself.

“I think the only reason for him to make this deal is because, you know, he’s at a point in his life right now with his family and everything else where he has to think about what happens to these songs in the future.”

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Young has not issued a public statement about the transaction. Mercuriadis says he’d like to give some of Young’s lesser-known songs a higher profile.

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Using songs to sell other products isn’t new, but it is controversial. Some fans are still outraged over a 1996 TV ad for the Bank of Montreal that uses Bob Dylan’s iconic protest song, The Times They Are A Changin’.

Last month, Dylan sold the publishing rights to his entire catalogue, more than 600 songs, for between $300 million and $500 million.

Stevie Nicks, of Fleetwood Mac fame, recently sold her music for a reported $100 million.

Terms of Young’s deal have not been disclosed. Some reports estimate it’s worth $150 million.

Mercuriadis notes Young keeps 50 per cent ownership of his songs.

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“My job is to bring Neil the best opportunities possible. But the decisions will be ultimately made by Neil as to whether or not something is done with the songs.”

Former music reviewer Ron Foley MacDonald, in Halifax, says repurposing classic songs can alter fans’ relationship with the music.

“Fans feel like they’re invested. Some of these songs are literally the soundtrack of their lives. So, if you suddenly hear a song that helped define you and your personality and how you’ve lived being used to sell motor oil, it might be good if you’re a car fan, but if you’re not a car fan, you might be a little offended.”

MacDonald says it’s unclear if song selloffs are good for fans, or if the only winners are the artists and businesses making the transactions.

Mercuriadis suggests Young’s songs will be handled with great care.

“This takes us back to a very famous Neil concert in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the early 1970s, where Neil is introducing Heart of Gold, and he’s telling the audience that he’d been approached to put it in a radio commercial and they were probably going to call it ‘Burger of Gold’ or something. And I referenced that ‘Burger of Gold’ in our press release and in the note that I make about why I’ve made this deal.

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“We’re never going to do anything like that. But what we’re going to do is go out and try and create opportunities that we believe are opportunities that will appeal to Neil and that will appeal to Neil’s audience. Because it’s not just Neil, it’s the audience as well.”

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