IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why buying Bob Dylan's songwriting catalog is a boon for Universal Music Group

Bob Dylan's songs defined an American era. The revenues from his music are still pouring in, experts explain.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

In almost 60 years, Bob Dylan has created a staggering body of work: wistful folk ballads, earnest anti-war anthems, fiery rock tracks, laid-back country tunes and even some gospel.

The artistic worth of his catalog — newly acquired by Universal Music Group in a blockbuster deal — is hard to overstate.

But the value of Dylan's songwriting oeuvre is not just a matter of his contributions to culture, according to music industry experts. Universal, a unit of the French media conglomerate Vivendi, stands to reap enormous rewards after it takes control of both the income Dylan receives as a songwriter, as well as more than 600 song copyrights.

Universal will collect royalties any time Dylan's music — from era-defining favorites like "Blowin' in the Wind" to this year's epic John F. Kennedy tribute "Murder Most Foul" — is sold, streamed, broadcast or featured in other media, such as a TV series.

"If you hear a song in a television commercial or you stream it on Spotify or you hear it in a movie, the publisher of that work is getting paid, no matter who is performing it," said Jeff Slate, a songwriter and music journalist who has written for The New Yorker, Esquire and other publications.

Universal is contractually barred from revealing how much it paid as part of the deal, but a source told NBC News that the sale price was “a sizable 9 figure amount, north of $200 million." Dylan's spokesperson said he could not comment on any numbers involved in the deal, adding that Dylan himself would not make a statement about it.

The potential windfall for the record company is even bigger when you consider what makes Dylan rare among professional recording artists, the experts said.

The first reason is that Dylan, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his "lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power," is the sole writing credit on most of his songs — which means Universal will not have to split royalties with collaborators or other interested parties, according to George Howard, an associate professor of music business management at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"Bob Dylan is arguably the greatest songwriter in history, and unlike [John] Lennon and [Paul] McCartney, [Mick] Jagger and [Keith] Richards, or others in the rock canon, he wrote the vast, vast majority of them by himself," Howard said.

The second reason is that Dylan's work is so widely covered by other artists. Universal, which said in a statement that Dylan's songs have been recorded more than 6,000 times, will reap royalty rewards every time musicians put their own spin on his lyrics.

"Everybody covers Bob Dylan songs: Coldplay, Adele, Bettye LaVette. I've covered his songs," Slate said.

"We're not talking about a second-tier artist from the golden age of rock-and-roll. We're talking about an artist who will be covered by others for many years to come," Slate added.

Lucian Grainge, the chief executive of Universal Music Group, echoed that sentiment in a statement announcing the deal: "I have no doubt that decades, even centuries from now, the words and music of Bob Dylan will continue to be sung and played — and cherished — everywhere.”

The third reason is that tracks composed by Dylan are frequently used in movies, TV shows and advertisements. The Internet Movie Database lists more than 800 soundtrack credits for Dylan, with songs he has written used to memorable effect in "Easy Rider," "Dazed and Confused," "Forrest Gump," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and many other films.

But the revenue from licensing agreements won't just pour into Universal every time a new Hollywood production pays a fee to use one of his original compositions. The licensing revenue extends to every "public performance" of a Dylan track, covers and remixes included.

In other words, when the cult classic comedy "The Big Lebowski" (featuring Dylan's 1970 track "The Man in Me") airs on basic cable, "more money will pour into Universal," Howard explained.

"It's a dark art in the music industry, but it's a huge revenue stream. The public performance revenues on the Dylan catalog are incredibly vast," he added.