• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

Who gets the royalties if an artist is dead?

ByLouis Fenner

Nov 23, 2023
We see a smartphone on a wooden table, with a Spotify playlist open.

Royalties are paid to artists when their music deemed their intellectual property is played on radio, television at concerts, bars or even through streaming sites such as Spotify and Apple music. However, when an artist dies and there’s no musician to pay for these too, where do they go?

Hugh Grant in About a Boy will have us believing that there is a whole swathe of nepo babies cashing in on the royalties of classic bangers such as ‘Santa’s Super Sleigh.’ What we find is that in a lot of cases the reality is actually not far from this.

Songs that are considered intellectual property and under current copyright laws can continue collecting royalties for 70 years after the death of the musician. In theory, royalties could pass down from the artist to a beneficiary of their choice, who can continue cashing in on the lucrative $0.00318 that artists are paid per stream on Spotify, for decades after the death of the creator. 

What has become more common in recent years however, is for the rights and therefore royalties, from music to be sold on to record labels for single lump sums. This can and has been very lucrative for the children of stars. Recently, David Bowie’s wife and children sold the rights and therefore royalties to his music following his death in 2016 for 250 million dollars to Warner Chappell Music. Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, went to cash in on this before his death, selling his rights for 500 million dollars in 2021 to Sony Music group. This means it will be Sony cashing in on his back catalogue until 70 years after his death.

All of this makes the whole process seem very simple: musicians get paid royalties during their lives and pass these on to people of their choice who get to cash in until 70 years after their death when it passes into the public domain. The reality of the music business however, is not that simple. Big record labels who exploit artists during their lives continue this into their deaths. Record labels routinely collect 50 to 90 per cent of the revenue from an artist’s work, a privilege they continue into an artist’s death.

AI will provide an interesting change to this. If something is created posthumously, by a computer, how can the same copyright laws apply? The short answer is: they don’t. There are specifically created laws stating that AI generated art has a copyright of 50 years after its creation. What is still protected under the same laws however is the ability to create and therefore gain royalties from such songs. While the songs are passed down as intellectual property so are other characteristics of the artist including their voice and image. Therefore, even though the song is created by AI (for example, in the new Beatles song where AI was used to replicate George Harrison’s voice), this is still his intellectual property and royalties can still be claimed on this for 70 years by the owner.

The real change from AI, will not come in the claiming of royalties but will come from artists being much more careful with who they hand their intellectual property rights to in a world where posthumously, thousands of songs could be created using their voice and music with which they had no part. This is a level of creative control many artists would be uncomfortable giving to the likes of a record label.

Image Credits: “Spotify” by Johan Larsson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.