David Bowie: Musical Innovator, Financial Innovator?

The story of the artist’s foray into asset-backed securities

Stephen Chernin / AP

David Bowie will be remembered for his music and style, but the late singer is also responsible for an important, but lesser known, contribution in another area: finance.

In 1997, Bowie, along with his business manager and a banker named David Pullman, created an asset-backed security whose value was backed up by the future royalties he earned from his music—they were dubbed “Bowie bonds.” It worked like this: For a reported price of $55 million, Bowie sold away 10 years’ worth of the royalties for music he’d produced between 1969 and 1990. Prudential, bought the entire issue, which paid an interest rate of 7.9 percent over that 10-year period.

While Bowie bonds were notable at the time for their money-making potential (“Billions of dollars of royalties a year are collected from songs like ‘Heroes’ and ‘Fame,’” Pullman told Bloomberg News in 2013) and the curious celebrity behind them, the bonds are are also one of the first examples of an artist using securitization to monetize his or her work while retaining control over the intellectual property. This is something that continues to be a challenge for many in creative industries and is generally much easier for those who have achieved household-name status.

Bowie didn’t choose to sell his royalties because he was in dire financial straits, but instead because he predicted a vast shift in the way the world consumed and sold music. In a 2002 interview, Bowie told The New York Times, “The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.” He noted that in the interim, artists should take advantage of the ability to control the distribution of their music, and to make some money off of it.

Initially Bowie bonds were given a solid investment-grade rating by Moody’s, but in 2004, as album sales dipped around the world, the bonds were downgraded to the level right above junk status. Still, after 10 years, the bond had been repaid to investors in full, and other famous creative securitizations have followed, including those built on the work of James Brown and Rod Stewart, and on the comic strip “Peanuts.”