As music rights sales heat up, Merck Mercuriadis swoops in with big offers

·5 min read

TORONTO — Merck Mercuriadis is holding a Canadian treasure in his hands.

Deep into a conversation about the future of the music industry, the head of the Hipgnosis Songs Fund steps away from his webcam to pull an album from his shelf.

It’s a vinyl copy of Joni Mitchell’s latest archival album released last year.

And even if Mercuriadis won’t say it aloud, it’s not hard to imagine the Alberta native’s "sublime" work is one of the jewels of Canadiana missing from his company's crown.

Mercuriadis, who grew up in Middleton, N.S., knows the value of a legendary song. In his career, he rose from a teenager cutting his teeth at a Canadian record label to helping manage Elton John, Beyonce, and Mary J. Blige, to name a few.

Over the past three years, the founder of Hipgnosis has been on a buying spree throughout the record business, paying billions of dollars for full or partial ownership rights to thousands upon thousands of iconic songs, including the work of many Canadians.

In early January, Mercuriadis secured a 50 per cent stake in the rights for all 1,180 of Neil Young’s songs, including "Heart of Gold" and "Harvest Moon."

A few weeks later he purchased the royalty rights owned by Winnipeg-born producer Bob Rock on some of Michael Buble's Christmas hits and Metallica's "Enter Sandman."

Mercuriadis believes there’s untapped potential in many of Canada’s most classic tunes.

"There’s Canadian music that is amongst the most important music in the world," he said, pointing to Young’s songbook, Robbie Robertson and Rush as examples.

"These people are making music the rest of the world loves, respects and that's a part of the fabric of our society."

He's not alone in seeing the value in buying up massive catalogues.

Rights acquisitions have become a hot commodity in the pandemic as the global concert industry remains at a standstill.

That's led a few smaller Canadian labels to explore their options, and in some cases sell their assets.

Linus Entertainment, home to Fred Penner and Gordon Lightfoot, has also made a number of acquisitions in recent months, including taking ownership of independent folk label Borealis Records.

And Quebecor Sports and Entertainment announced on Wednesday it was buying the French-Canadian label Audiogram, home to Bran Van 3000 and Pierre Lapointe.

Songwriters with established names have seen companies like Hipgnosis show up at their doorstep with significant lump-sum offers in exchange for ownership and royalties.

In theory, these companies see a growing flow of income from streaming music platforms, placement in TV shows, and cover versions by other musicians.

Hipgnosis and other investors behind marquee acquisitions also point to a new generation of revenue streams flowing from less obvious places: exercise bike company Peloton, for instance, pays royalties on music used in its online classes, and TikTok videos can elevate dusty old hits like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” back onto the charts almost overnight.

Canadian music manager Bruce Allen, who helped negotiate the sale of Rock’s songs to Hipgnosis, says for many established performers, shedding their past catalogue makes sense. It gives them a retirement fund to rely on and prevents infighting between relatives when the ownership rights fall to them after the musician dies.

"Look at the mess that we have with Prince or Tom Petty; Michael Jackson, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. It just goes on and on with estates battling over the spoils of the poor fellow who died," said Allen.

"If ... a guy wants to pay me 23 times earnings and I'm 70 years old, I would say 'you know what, that's not a bad idea.'"

But it's not just estate planning that drives musicians to part with their ownership rights.

Toronto songwriter Dan Hill says he became tired of chasing down companies who were using versions of his 1977 ballad “Sometimes When We Touch” without his permission.

The song had shown up in commercials that aired outside North America, and when Hill heard about it, the offending companies refused to pay up. The next step was calling his lawyers to threaten legal action.

"I don't want to spend eight hours a day doing this anymore," he remembers thinking.

"I'd rather just spend time writing songs."

Three years ago, Hill sold his ownership stake in all of his past work to Canadian music publisher Anthem Entertainment, formerly known as Ole, for “well over a million” dollars.

Not everyone is convinced parting ways is the right choice, however.

Bryan Adams has rebuffed offers for his valuable catalogue of 1980s and 1990s hits, while "Sugar, Sugar" co-writer Andy Kim says he’s soured to the idea of handing over the reins to his work in exchange for a bag of cash.

One of his biggest concerns is what happens if a buyer he trusts winds up in a financial bind.

"All companies can go bankrupt, so what happens (then?)," Kim says.

"My instinct has always been no… What's going on today, I think it's great for those who feel (the need to) cash in now. But in my will, I’ll give (the rights) away to people that I really like and love."

Those sentiments are familiar to Mercuriadis who's sat across from some of the best names in the industry to make his case.

Young was reluctant to hand over "Rockin' in the Free World" and his other classics over worries they'd wind up in advertisements for automobiles or fast food joints.

Mercuriadis says he promised the folk singer an exceptional relationship between them where he'd personally oversee his portfolio of songs.

His staff of nearly 80 people each take responsibility for a small group of songs assigned to them, making sure they don't get misused or abused. It's this defining characteristic that he says makes Hipgnosis stand out from its competitors.

"If we're ever in doubt, we refer to the songwriter," Mercuriadis says.

"The acquisition is the beginning of our relationship."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2021

David Friend, The Canadian Press