I’m a fan of contemporary art, especially abstract and performance art. And while I like the style and power of the British graffiti artist Banksy, I can’t decide if I am delighted or dumbfounded by the fate of one of his recent paintings.
Three years ago, when bidding ended for “Girl with Balloon,” one of his most iconic pieces, at Sotheby’s in London — selling for $1.4 million — a beeping commenced and the painting lowered itself into a shredder Banksy had secretly installed in the lower part of the frame, cutting the piece into strips. The act was branded social commentary of the highest order: “… an attention-grabbing spectacle (the shredding) taking place within an attention-grabbing spectacle (the auction), which highlighted through dark satire how art has become an investment commodity to be auctioned off to ultrawealthy trophy-hunters,” opined one critic for the BBC.
Last week, the buyer of “Girl with Balloon” got the last laugh. Retitled “Love is in the Bin” — described as “Decommissioned, remote controlled shredding mechanism remains in the frame” — the still half-shredded piece was again auctioned off, this time fetching $25.4 million, more than three times Sotheby’s highest estimate and more than 18 times what the 2018 purchaser paid.
It’s a fascinating commentary on what is art and the control that an artist has — or doesn’t have — over his or her work. Destruction isn’t unprecedented: In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg obtained a drawing from Willem de Kooning, erased, then framed and sold it. “Erased de Kooning,” a “drawing (with) traces of drawing media on paper with a label and gilded frame,” hangs today in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The proper value of art has been the focus of intense speculation amidst reports of the purchase of songwriting catalogues for some astronomical sums. Last December, Nobel laureate and folk singer Bob Dylan sold his songwriting catalog to Universal Music for more than $300 million. Stevie Nicks, the diva fronting Fleetwood Mac, sold a majority share of her catalogue for $80 million, while Neil Young sold half of his copyrights for an estimated $150 million and Paul Simon collected $250 million for the sale of his entire catalogue earlier this year.
Those are only the most eye-popping purchases as investment funds scour the music publishing world. The most high-profile buyer is Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which has spent nearly $2 billion to purchase rights to over 57,000 songs. KKR, the U.S. investment fund, has said that it would partner with BMG, one of the world’s largest music companies, to buy song catalogues, and it’s reportedly soon to close a $1.1 billion deal that includes hits from Lorde and The Weeknd. Blackstone, another investment giant, is set to establish a $1 billion fund to work with Hipgnosis, and Apollo, yet another firm, announced it was setting up its own $1 billion fund. As a former musician and songwriter, I’m beginning to reconsider my career choices.
Song rights are the stuff of musician dreams and nightmares. It’s a complicated business with different types of rights — performer, producing, writing and publishing credits (split between writers and the publishing companies themselves) — but in theory they should provide a steady revenue stream for songwriters to get them through lean times when they aren’t performing (and are instead creating) and in their old age. There are horror stories of musicians signing away those rights for pittances, either because they were defrauded, desperate or disinterested.
The new enthusiasm for those rights is the product of changes in the music business, economic factors and a belief that catalogue managers haven’t properly exploited their product. Some observers credit the COVID-19 pandemic for shutting down the touring business, which was an easy source of revenue; artists now have to think more creatively about monetizing their creativity.
Merck Mercuriadis, former manager of Beyonce and Elton John, and the moving force behind Hipgnosis, argues that today’s most popular music is the work of songwriters and producers who deliver for artists, yet they receive a fraction of the revenue that is generated. As he explained to The New York Times last year, “90% of artists that are being signed are reliant on songwriters to help deliver hits, and yet the songwriter is now the low man or woman on the totem pole when it comes to getting paid.”
The rise of music streaming has altered revenue flows. Artists once collected fees from album and CD sales; today songs are the most important medium, and the fees generated are generally much smaller. Streaming also democratizes the market, allowing more musicians to earn money from their work. A report on the British industry noted that more than 2,000 artists will have 10 million streams this year in that country, double the number who sold an equivalent number of CDs and downloads in 2007. There are new opportunities to use and monetize music — social media is one example — that demand more effective management of song rights.
Economists argue the most important feature in the new investment environment is low inflation: It means that there is more expected value in future returns, which makes royalty streams so intriguing. This is particularly enticing if, as advocates claim — and the evidence confirms — demand for music is inelastic, unlike many other commodities. People will always want to listen.
Mercuriadis insists the current catalogue holders aren’t doing the job properly, either because they are overwhelmed by the demands of managing massive (multimillion song) catalogues, or because of a failure to understand the new business. He and his backers are convinced that smarter “song management” can yield more money. And big investors always believe they have a superior model. (Music industry insiders believe the criticisms are oversimplified and the business is much harder than it looks.
Mercuriadis’ history should insulate him from charges of naivete. So does his recent record: Hipgnosis is doing well. The fair value of its catalogue, determined by an independent review, increased in value by 10% during the second quarter of this year.
The mysteries of valuing art and music invariably come to mind whenever I read about crypto currencies. Their value also seems to be a function of prevailing winds. Then again, all money is, as Paul Krugman reminds us, quoting Paul Samuelson citing Milton Friedman, “a matter of social contrivance.” It’s turtles all the way down. But at least you can hang a painting, no matter what shape or how many pieces it’s in, on the wall.
A similar mysticism surrounds talk of minting a $1 trillion platinum coin to sidestep the increasingly ugly antics accompanying U.S. Congressional debate over raising the debt ceiling. This legislation is needed to pay for expenses the U.S. has already incurred; failure to raise the debt ceiling would essentially constitute a default by the U.S. since it could not pay all its bills. The argument asserts that minting the coin would give the U.S. government an additional trillion dollars to pay its bills. (Since the coin would be the product of executive fiat it would also circumvent Congress’ constitutionally appointed role to appropriate all funds spent by the government.)
Ultimately, a $1 trillion coin is a lot like that Banksy painting. Its value is what others say it’s worth. If foreign creditors accept that it will be repaid in full, then it’s worth $1 trillion. If they don’t, then it’s little more than performance art or an expensive piece of sculpture.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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