Steven Van Zandt Joins the Boom in Sales of Music Catalogs and Rights

Anyone with a passing interest in the music business over the last year has noted several things:

  • Certain artists of a sufficient stature have sold their publishing rights for significant money. Most of those have been legacy artists like Springsteen and Dylan, but Justin Bieber recently had his publishing catalog purchased.
  • Record companies are making more money on vinyl than CDs, and more importantly they are making more money in the last few years than they have in the last few decades.
  • Musicians on an individual basis are still not feeling properly compensated in the seemingly ubiquitous streaming model.

Against that backdrop, one of my rock ‘n’ roll heroes recently announced a purchase of many of his rights. Primary Wave, a market leader in this space, recently purchased from Steven Van Zandt publishing, recording and “a portion of his name and likeness rights.” We will get to the latter set of rights momentarily, but note that the rights include a stake in producer royalties from Van Zandt’s classic work with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, along with band member and producer royalties from his long collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, which includes such landmark albums as The River and Born In The U.S.A., as well as songs like “Hungry Heart,” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” and more.

The name and likeness rights generally refer to merch rights (think apparel) and have usually been carved out from prior publishing deals.

Springsteen and Van Zandt had scruffled around the Jersey shore in the 1960s and 1970s, slowly building that scene.

Van Zandt explained in his wonderful 2021 autobiography (Unrequited Infatuations, Hachette Books) how his timing may not have always been ideal, most notably departing the E Street Band on the cusp of its explosively successful Born in the USA Tour in the mid 1980s. I interviewed Van Zandt as that tour wound through four nights at the Los Angeles Coliseum while was doing press interviews for his Sun City project, which was an all-star project similar to We Are The World, but focused specifically on the brutal apartheid system in South Africa. It may have been my imagination, but Van Zandt looked genuinely surprised and pleased when I mentioned that Springsteen had dedicated a song to him at one of the evenings in the stadium.

Bruce Springsteen and Van Zandt have more than half a century of friendship and musical success.

Decades later after rejoining the E Street Band, Van Zandt created the role of another consigliere, this time in The Sopranos.

The press materials announcing the deal with Primary Wave pointed out that for more than five decades, Van Zandt’s songs have been performed by such stars as Nancy Sinatra, Meat Loaf, Ronnie Spector, Damian Marley, Brian Setzer, Michael Monroe, Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimmy Barnes, Black Uhuru, and many others. Highlights of the deal include some of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s biggest hits, among them Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ timeless “I Don’t Want To Go Home” and “This Time It’s For Real,” his impassioned protest anthem, “I Am A Patriot” (famously covered by Jackson Browne, Pearl Jam, and others), the theme song for his critically acclaimed 2019 Netflix series, Lilyhammer, and Darlene Love’s holiday favorite, “All Alone On Christmas” (the latter featured in such films as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Love Actually). 

“Yes, the Primary Wave deal is a big deal.” Van Zandt in concert, San Diego 2017 (photo by Brad Auerbach)

For those unfamiliar with the implications of the deal, essentially Primary Wave will be collecting all the revenue from all activity related to the designated music.

Primary Wave has been in a leadership role doing such landmark deals, The company is home to some of the most iconic songwriters, artists, and record labels across the history of recorded music including Sun Records, Bob Marley, Prince, Stevie Nicks, James Brown, Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek (The Doors), Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Smokey Robinson, Whitney Houston, Burt Bacharach, Bing Crosby, Luther Vandross, Olivia Newton-John, Ray Charles, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, America, War, Gerry Goffin, Traveling Wilburys (Bob Dylan), Joey Ramone, Robbie Robertson, Teddy Pendergrass, Count Basie, Sly & The Family Stone, Boston, Alice Cooper, Paul Anka, Boy George and Culture Club, Allee Willis, Leon Russell, Paul Rodgers, Free, Toots & The Maytals, Steve Cropper, Martina McBride, Glenn Gould, Air Supply, Huey Lewis and the News, Jeff Porcaro (TOTO), Holly Knight, Jim Peterik, Alice In Chains, Godsmack, Disturbed, Devo, Donny Hathaway, George Merrill & Shannon Rubicam, Nicky Chinn, David Malloy, Even Stevens, Julian Casablancas (The Strokes), Noel Hogan (Cranberries), Dan Wilson, Mike Scott (Waterboys), Chris Isaak, KT Tunstall, Patrick Leonard, Sturken & Rogers, Gin Blossoms, Tom Whitlock, Steve Kipner, Matt Redman, and many more. The songs represented by Primary Wave include over 800 Top 10 singles, and over 400 #1 hits.

Van Zandt, despite some odd timing issues which he fully acknowledges, has carved out a three-pronged career as musician, actor and founder of TeachRock, a standards-aligned, arts integration curriculum that uses the history of popular music and culture to help teachers engage students. On top of that, he likely kickstarted the concept of the curated radio show (“Underground Garage”), later leveraged by the likes of Dylan (“Theme Time Radio Show”), Tom Petty, Alice Cooper and many others.

His deal with Primary Wave may give him the cushion to hurry up and relax, but I sorta doubt he will.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.