After months of murmurs, news broke just before the long Memorial Day weekend that, according to unnamed sources, the surviving members of Queen were in the process of selling the legendary group’s catalog for a mind-boggling $1 billion. Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, was said to be the likely buyer.
Three sources tell Variety the deal is in advanced stages — although another close to the situation says it is very preliminary — and that the billion-dollar price tag is “real.” However, exactly what is included in the package is not entirely clear.
The deal “is Universal’s to lose,” two sources said — although Sony Music is said to be waiting in the wings — owing to the company’s longstanding relationship with the group, which signed with EMI in 1972 and remained with the company, which was acquired by Universal in 2011, throughout its career. However, in 1991 it signed a licensing deal with Hollywood Records for U.S. and Canadian recorded-music rights only, which led to a later acquisition by the company of those assets — and therein lies one of the complicating factors.
If true, the acquisition would dwarf the largest such deals on record, which include Bruce Springsteen selling his publishing and recorded-music to Sony for a reported $600 million and Bob Dylan selling his publishing to Universal for a price said to be nearly $400 million. Biggest of all, sources told Variety in February that the Michael Jackson estate is in the process of selling half of the late singer’s music catalog to Sony and an unspecified financial partner for between $800-900 million, although that deal apparently had not closed at the time of this article’s publication.
To be sure, Queen’s music catalog is among the most valuable in the world — with classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Radio GaGa,” “39,” “Somebody to Love” and “You’re My Best Friend” as well as the perennial stadium-shakers “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” the songs are globally popular and enormously lucrative.
Reps for Queen, Universal and Disney all declined comment, although a source close to the situation tells Variety that Hollywood has no current or future plans to sell its rights.
But a billion dollars speaks loudly.
Obviously, whether or not that sum is realistic depends on what is included in it. Three sources tell Variety the publishing assets of the bandmembers — Brian May, Roger Taylor, John Deacon and the estate of Freddie Mercury, all of whom are equal shareholders in Queen Productions Ltd. — are on the table, although another says they are not. That situation may or may not be complicated by the fact that the group’s songs were almost entirely written by individual members up to the 1982 “Hot Space” album, when they agreed to be collectively credited on each song no matter who actually wrote it.
Yet the real wild card is Hollywood’s ownership of the North American rights to the catalog, which presumably would be a separate or related transaction if the company were to change its mind about selling. While the group’s catalog is certainly enormously valuable in most other parts of the world, the U.S. is the world’s largest music market by a long stretch and Canada is no slouch at No. 8, according to the IFPI’s 2022 report. The absence of those two markets, not to mention publishing rights, would seem to drop the catalog’s value substantially below $1 billion.
Indeed, Hollywood’s 1991 deal with the group has turned out to be one of the most far-sighted in the industry. At the time, lead singer Freddie Mercury was widely rumored to be afflicted with AIDS, although he did not confirm the reports until the day before his death the following year. Peter Paterno, the then-new label’s CEO, was lambasted for overpaying a reported $10 million licensing deal with the group and, absent other major hits on the label, stepped down from his post after his contract expired in 1993; he has long since returned to his previous status as one of the industry’s top attorneys.
While details are unclear, at some point the group sold those rights to Hollywood: A series of 2011 reissues and all streaming credits bear a Hollywood copyright line, rather than the previous “Queen Productions under license to Hollywood Records Inc.” Queen is one of the most business-savvy major recording artists — and like many such artists, they signed a deal early in their career that they later regretted financially and legally — and it seems uncharacteristic for the group to sell off any of its considerable assets. But at the time of the sale, which probably took place sometime in the 2000s, the music industry had lost half of its value due to illegal downloading, and the bandmembers may have considered it a good time to sell. However, they probably wish they’d waited: Streaming brought the music industry back to health and, as the Dylan, Springsteen and (presumably) Jackson deals show, the value of such assets has grown exponentially over the past decade-plus.
Be that as it may, some sources suggest that, as often happens in such catalog deals, the exact details are unconfirmed and players may be leaking information in order to goose up the price as a deal approaches its close. One source tells Variety that such a tactic may be in play with the Queen deal — that the talks are still in early stages and the media reports are being used in an attempt to solidify a billion-dollar price tag, a.k.a. a “stalking horse.”
Time will tell. Variety will have more on this situation as it develops.