His music hasn’t set the charts on fire since Ronald Reagan was in the White House, but David Bowie recently created a bigger stir than all of his avant-punk anthems combined.
On Jan. 31, $55 million of David Bowie bonds — based on the future sales of songs like ”Modern Love” — were snapped up by Prudential Insurance faster than you can say ”Ziggy Stardust.” The sale has made Wall Street bullish on such onetime rebels as Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd, who are reportedly mulling over their own rock & roll offerings.
Why are classic rockers suddenly humming Bowie’s tune? Usually, artists looking to cash in on old hits license a record company the rights to their song catalog and then wait for the semiannual royalty checks to trickle in. But Bowie’s business manager, Bill Zysblat, and Fahnestock & Co., Inc. managing director David Pullman devised a better way, by getting Wall Street to front their client the projected future revenues and having him pay them back as his old standards continue to sell.
Under the deal, the singer gets $55 million now; Prudential gets a hefty 7.9 percent annual return on its piece of rock & roll, paid out of Bowie’s new deal with EMI Records, which has guaranteed it’ll pay $30 million for the catalog as well as a traditional cut of album sales. And though sales of Bowie’s new CD, Earthling, stiffed, repaying the bond shouldn’t be much of an issue. His 25 catalog albums, including Young Americans, sell over a million copies a year, making the chances of default as slim as the man himself.
Yet isn’t this all, well, a little Gordon Gekko-esque for a guy who used to wear body glitter? Fred Goodman, whose new book, The Mansion on the Hill, traces the gradual evolution of the rock business, sees it as a natural progression. ”It’s a great business move for him,” says the author. He counters, however, ”I’m not sure it’s such a great buy for bond buyers. It’s a tchotchke. It’s the Hard Rock Cafe of bonds.”
Not quite, says Arturo Cifuentes, an analyst at Moody’s, which gave the David Bowie Class A Royalty-Backed Notes a thumbs-up A-3 rating. ”If Mr. Bowie becomes engaged in an activity that the public finds distasteful,” he says, ”sales could drop. But then again, if he suddenly dies, that might have a very positive impact. Things are weird that way.”
Zysblat, unsurprisingly, tries to put more of a ”Rebel Rebel” spin on things. ”The fact that David is the first musician to do [a bond offering] is wonderful because he is always on the cutting edge,” says Zysblat, who also represents CS&N, the next rockers expected to go public.
Don’t look for too many of these offerings, though — the only artists who can do so are those with big catalogs stuffed with songs that people still want to hear. In other words, eager to own a piece of the J. Geils Band? Ain’t gonna happen.