Billy Joel Tested Song Catalog Sale at Record-High Multiples

In October, Billy Joel acknowledged that he had received offers for his prized song catalog, but he joked he wasn’t interested in selling for anything short of what would be an astronomical sum — because he wants to retain control over how his songs are used when licensed in commercials, TV and films.

However, sources say that after receiving inquiries about the catalog, Joel’s representatives actively tested the waters by reaching out to potential suitors to more broadly assess interest levels.

In an interview with Howard Stern last October, Joel conceded that he might sell his song catalog if he was offered $1 billion — a price Stern suggested as a valuation for his songs. “I don’t know who would pay that but if someone offered me $1 billion…what am I gonna say, no?” he said. “I’m from Levittown.”

While Joel may not agree his song catalog is worth $1 billion, sources say that Joel’s representatives tested to see what the market was willing to bear, with a pricing suggestion described by a number of music asset buyers as quite possibly the highest valuation ever for a song catalog — at least on a multiple basis.

According to those sources, Joel’s representatives shopping the catalog included his agent Dennis Arfa.

But it’s unclear how far that effort went. Sources indicate Joel’s reps were armed with an annual revenue number and an expected bidding price but hadn’t prepared more extensive data.

Joel’s representatives say the catalog is not up for sale. “At this time the [Billy Joel] catalog is not on the market,” Arfa said in an e-mail. And another source familiar with the proceedings disputes the characterization that the Joel catalog was ever up for sale.

In addition to his songwriter share, Joel owns publishing of his song catalog, too, having received it as a present from his then-label head, the late Walter Yetnikoff. The CBS Records president had induced an early manager of Joel, who had locked up the publishing as part of his managerial contract with the artist, to relinquish control of the Piano Man’s publishing, according to numerous press reports at the time.

During his career, Joel, who is the sole songwriter of 99.5% of all of his songs, has had 33 top 40 hits, of which 13 hit the top 10 and three — “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” “Tell Her About It” and “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” reached the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100.

Billboard estimates Joel’s song catalog averaged $8.915 million in annual music publishing royalties over the three-year period of 2019-2021, which falls within the $8 million-to-$9 million range cited to Billboard by several sources who often deal in the music asset marketplace.

While Joel’s representatives didn’t ask for $1 billion, sources say they instead asked potential suitors to sign a non-binding offer sheet that they would be willing to pay a 50-times-NPS multiple or $400 million; and then a second go-round where a 40-times-NPS multiple was the ask.

Even the wished-for 40-times multiple would be the highest multiple at which a catalog is publicly known to have traded. Currently, the 28- to 29-times multiple that sources say Universal Music Group paid for the Bob Dylan song catalog is considered the priciest valuation. Sources say that Dylan’s catalog produces anywhere from $13 million to $15 million annually, which suggests that Universal Music Publishing Group paid between $364 million to $435 million — and sources say the price paid was closer to the latter.

Consequently, when potential bidders for Joel’s songs weren’t receptive to a 40 times multiple, the catalog, which is administered globally by UMPG, appears to have been withdrawn from the market. Sources say things have been quiet for the last few months.

While music asset traders say that while the Joel catalog is undoubtedly valuable, a 50-times or 40-times multiple would be hard to justify — especially with rising interest rates.

Besides apparently not getting his price, as Joel told Stern, the main reason that he hasn’t been tempted to sell is because he prefers having control over how his songs are licensed in commercials and films, a right he would lose if he sold. In fact, Joel’s selectivity about licensing his music makes the iconic-song-laden catalog even more attractive to would-be suitors, who would likely welcome all licensing opportunities and thus make it easier to boost the catalog’s earnings. As one source put it, “The Billy Joel catalogue is one of the great crown jewels out there: a pristine body of work not underused or overused.”

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