Lessons From A Songwriter: Emotional Attachment vs. Financial Opportunity

The world's full of artists waiting for the day their back catalog will generate meaningful earnings again. But only some artists stop waiting and do something about it today.
June 5, 2017

All songwriters have an emotional attachment to their music. For John Chisum, that attachment is stronger than most.

At 18, he had what he called a “strong conversion” to Christianity. Shortly after, he began writing Christian Worship music professionally, pouring all his faith into the music he wrote.

Over the course of his 30-year career, John published more than 400 songs, working with such legendary Christian artists as Ron Kenoly, Truth, and First Call. Nearly every major Christian music publisher have used his compositions. Former heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield even once used one of his songs as his entrance theme.  

So when he started to consider selling a portion of his royalty income to raise money for the future projects he had on deck, it was a decision he did not take lightly.

“The biggest thing for me was my emotional attachment to it,” he said. “Thirty years of my spirituality as a writer was attached to that catalog. (But) I’m newly self-employed, and that brings challenges. So this is a great opportunity to retire some debt and start fresh.”

Like any other songwriter, John viewed royalty payments as something he should hang on to forever. Song rights are something to fund his retirement and pass along to his kids. But the decades-old catalog was not earning the royalty income it used to.

John’s two oldest catalogs,  including some of the first songs he ever wrote, made about $4,300 in the previous 12 months… not enough to fund the projects he has in front of him.

He had to decide whether to hang onto it and hope that his royalty payments might see an uptick, or sell a portion of it to investors willing to pay a premium today.

“The big question is ‘what if?’” he explained. “What if I let go of an asset that suddenly takes off? What am I letting go of in the future? With streaming in its infancy, what’s going to happen if suddenly one of my songs gets traction? Am I giving up anything?”

Ultimately, he decided to let go of the past to invest in his future.

For instance, he’s working with Mickey Mouse Club alumnus Jennifer McGill, co-writing the title track of her new album “Unbreakable” and pitching to TV and movies. He’s also starting a new songwriter advocacy group focused on worship music called Nashville Christian Songwriters.

Royalty Exchange listed his catalog for $15,000, representing a multiple of about 3.5 times its past 12 months earnings. That’s a smart strategy, as the price would quickly attract a larger number of potential bidders.

See, investors on Royalty Exchange love a catalog with longevity. The longer a catalog has produced earnings, the more stable and consistent it feels as an investment. And with a chance to get in at only a 3.5 multiple, it’s a no brainer to bid.

And that’s exactly what happened. The catalog received a bid nearly straight away, and 23 investors registered for the resulting auction. With 39 bids on the catalog in total, it ultimately closed for $45,500… triple the original asking price and more than 10 times what the catalog earned in the year before.

"I’m not unhappy with the outcome,” John told us, laughing. “This was an opportunity to monetize 30-year old compositions in a pretty dramatic way. We got a 10.4 multiple, so that was pretty darn phenomenal.”

The world's full of artists waiting for the day their back catalog will generate meaningful earnings again. But only some artists, like John, stop waiting and do something about it today. The steps John took to reignite his catalog were life changing.

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