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David Bowie’s estate sells his publishing catalog to Warner Chappell Music

The deal, believed to be worth $250 million, is the latest in an era that has seen song catalogs soar to previously unimagined values.
Image: David Bowie
David Bowie performs in Paris, on July 1, 2002.Bertrand Guay / AFP - Getty Images file

After months of negotiations, David Bowie’s estate has sold the singer’s formidable publishing catalog to Warner Chappell Music for a price upwards of $250 million, sources confirm to Variety and NBC News.

The catalog spans six decades and includes such songs as “Heroes,” “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” “Fame,” “Let’s Dance,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Golden Years,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “All the Young Dudes,” his 1981 collaboration with Queen “Under Pressure” and hundreds more.

The agreement comprises songs from the 26 David Bowie studio albums released during his lifetime, as well as the posthumous studio album release, “Toy,” which comes out on Friday. It also includes the two studio albums from Tin Machine, along with tracks released as singles from soundtracks and other projects.

The deal brings nearly all of Bowie’s music into the Warner system. Last September, the estate announced a global partnership with Warner Music that will bring the late artist’s vast recorded-music catalog from 1968 through 2016 under the company’s umbrella; the deal includes Bowie’s albums from 2000 through 2016, which were originally released via Sony Music.

The publishing announcement comes amid the “Bowie 75” celebration, surrounding the late singer’s 75th birthday on Saturday. The campaign also includes pop-up stores in New York and London and the release in November of the “Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001)” boxed set and, on Friday, his previously unreleased “Toy” album, comprising re-recorded versions of relatively obscure songs dating from early in his career; while that album is available as part of the boxed set, it will be released separately on Friday.

In November, Variety broke the news that a new Bowie film culled from thousands of hours of rare performance footage, most of it previously uncirculated, is in its final stages and could premier as soon as the Sundance Film Festival later this month. Brett Morgen, the director behind “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” “Jane” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” has been working on the project for four years, sources say, with longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti is serving as music director.

The move is the latest in a wide-ranging series of deals by Warner Chappell, which include catalog deals with Bruno Mars, Cardi B, Quincy Jones, Anderson .Paak, Saweetie and the estate of George Michael, among many others.

In a statement to NBC News confirming the news on Monday, Warner Chappell Music Co-Chair and CEO Guy Moot said: “All of us at Warner Chappell are immensely proud that the David Bowie estate has chosen us to be the caretakers of one of the most groundbreaking, influential, and enduring catalogs in music history. These are not only extraordinary songs, but milestones that have changed the course of modern music forever. Bowie’s vision and creative genius drove him to push the envelope, lyrically and musically — writing songs that challenged convention, changed the conversation, and have become part of the canon of global culture. His work spanned massive pop hits and experimental adventures that have inspired millions of fans and countless innovators, not only in music, but across all the arts, fashion, and media. We are looking forward to tending his unparalleled body of songs with passion and care as we strive to build on the legacy of this most extraordinary human being.”

“I’d like to thank everyone involved with making this wonderful deal happen,” Moot continued, “including Bill Zysblat, Tom Cyrana, and the entire Bowie team at RZO, attorney Allen Grubman and firm, as well as our very own ‘Team Bowie’ made up of Warner Chappell colleagues Alice Aleksandrovich, Steve Butler, Michael LoBiondo, and David Woirhaye.”

WCM Co-Chair and COO Carianne Marshall noted: “This fantastic pact with the David Bowie estate opens up a universe of opportunities to take his extraordinary music into dynamic new places. This isn’t merely a catalog, but a living, breathing collection of timeless songs that are as powerful and resonant today as they were when they were first written. We were pleased that the estate felt that Warner Chappell has the knowledge, experience, and resources to take the reins and continue to promote a collection of this stature. All of our global leaders and departments are incredibly excited and primed to get to work with these brilliant songs across multiple avenues and platforms. And with both sides of WMG now representing Bowie’s career, we couldn’t be better set up to represent this illustrious body of work.”

On behalf of the David Bowie Estate and RZO, Allen Grubman added: “We are truly gratified that David Bowie’s body of music will now be in the capable hands of Warner Chappell Music Publishing. We are sure they will cherish it and take care of it with the greatest level of dignity.”

Bowie, who died of cancer in January of 2016, was fastidious about maintaining control of his work and regularly snapped up stray recordings and other items from his career whenever they became available. While his estate owns his catalog from 1968 forward, his earliest officially released material — a string of singles and one self-titled 1967 album, all of which are vastly inferior to his classic work — is outside of the Warner deal, although ironically, many of the songs from that era appear in new versions on “Toy.”

The deal is the latest in an era that has seen song catalogs soar to previously unimagined values, with Bruce Springsteen’s publishing and recorded-music rights going to Sony for a staggering number sources say is in the mid-$500 million range, Bob Dylan’s publishing going to Universal for nearly $400 million, Paul Simon’s to Sony for $250 million, and many more. While selling song catalogs may seem unthinkable for many songwriters, for older artists it’s actually a sensible estate-planning move: The market for such properties is far hotter than it’s ever been, and it saves the songwriter’s heirs from having to manage a very complicated asset — and gets them a big pile of money instead.