Music rights fund Hipgnosis hits right note with investors

Music and video streaming is this generation’s Californian Gold Rush and one man leading the charge is Merck Mercuriadis.

The music mogul and founder of music rights firm Hipgnosis Songs Fund has had a barnstorming pandemic, spending nearly £1billion to acquire some of the world’s best-known artists, from the Kaiser Chiefs to megastars such as Beyoncé and pint sized pop princess Shakira. 

Yesterday the company got its hands on Metallica’s music library and launched a fresh equity offering so that it can continue to splash the cash.

Big spender: Hipgnosis has had a barnstorming pandemic, spending nearly £1bn to acquire some of the world's best-known artists including pint sized pop princess Shakira (pictured)

Big spender: Hipgnosis has had a barnstorming pandemic, spending nearly £1bn to acquire some of the world’s best-known artists including pint sized pop princess Shakira (pictured)

The business model is simple – buy the songs from the artist and every time one of the tunes are played or streamed from Spotify and Apple, Hipgnosis takes a cut.

So successful has the fund been that backers include the Church of England, Aviva, Investec and Axa.

The glitzy headlines from the weekly drip of press releases have also helped the company’s share price grow by 16 per cent since it floated in 2018, making it a stalwart of the FTSE 250. 

But many in the music industry are uncomfortable with Hipgnosis and its overnight success, and have questioned whether the company’s performance is too good to be true.

Founded by Mercuriadis and funk guitarist Nile Rodgers, the two veterans drew up the plan for the Guernsey-registered investment company. The unlikely business relationship sees Rogers providing credibility with the artists and Mercuriadis the commercial nous.

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But according to music industry sources, the business model adds little long term value for investors as all Hipgnosis does is curate the songs without putting them to work.

Hipgnosis provides little marketing or strategy for the songs once it has bought them, and no plan for making sure they appear on the right Spotify playlists or in the next blockbuster Hollywood film.

One source said: ‘There’s usually a big infrastructure behind these songs doing well.’

They cite George Michael’s Last Christmas, the first number one of 2021.

‘It didn’t just appear out of nowhere,’ the source said. ‘It had to be pushed. It’s not just a case of buying the songs and watching the money roll in.

‘Marketing and publicity all require investment but so far the evidence is all the capital is going to the artists.’

Others have questioned whether he is overpaying for the musician’s catalogues as the firm does not disclose how much it pays for each deal. Many musicians, particularly older ones, want to sell their songs to pay for their retirement or set up an estate for their children.

Managing and waiting for music royalties to be paid can be a tedious, heavy administrative task. So if someone is willing to pay a lump sum artists often take the option.

The source added: ‘These artists will be happy to take the cheque and there is evidence he is overpaying in order to secure them.’

Mercuriadis himself has also raised eyebrows. The son of a Greek footballer, he was born in Schefferville, a former mining town in the Canadian province of Quebec. 

Now 57, he has 40 years’ experience in the industry, much of which was spent at management label Sanctuary.

Despite stating that he does not believe in material things, Mercuriadis owns a six-bedroom off-white townhouse in Notting Hill and his Instagram account is littered with pictures of him staying at five-star hotels around the globe.

In recent weeks financial analysts have also raised red flags over the way the business constructs its accounts.

In particular, City broking firm Stifel has questioned the net asset value measure the company uses. This is regarded as a good measurement for funds that invest in liquid assets with daily prices – such as listed equities –as investors can monitor the prices. But it is no good for alternative assets, like music catalogues.

It is normal therefore for real estate, private equity and infrastructure funds to cautiously mark the asset at cost.

Then, if the asset appreciates, an investor can realise a gain when it is sold. But Hipgnosis does the opposite, writing up its investments as soon as it has purchased them.

Stifel analyst Max Haycock said: ‘Accounts show that recently acquired catalogues have seen significant rises in value. This is despite the manager not having had sufficient time to add value or underlying market assumptions to have materially changed.’

Haycock says he feels uncomfortable with company’s accounting methods as royalties take a long time to pay and so there could be a mismatch in valuations once they have been received. 

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Haycock also adds that there is evidence Hipgnosis has struggled to collect cash owed from the royalties.

He says: ‘The issues are further compounded by the structure of the music royalty industry, as a song streamed today may not lead to a cash payment for at least six months and possibly longer. There is a significant lag between revenues being booked and cash received.’

For a company that is always tapping investors for money, maybe it is time to question if all that glitters really is gold.

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