Roger Waters’ Putin ‘apologism’ throws Pink Floyd’s £400m pay day into doubt

“Money/It’s a crime/Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie,” croons David Gilmour in the 1973 Pink Floyd song. Half a century later, the lyrics are coming back to haunt him.

After decades of simmering tensions between the surviving band members – in particular Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters – Pink Floyd’s row has now burst into the open, culminating last week in public accusations of anti-Semitism and Putin apologism.

The spat threatens to damage the legacy of Pink Floyd, whose album The Dark Side of the Moon cemented the band’s status as one of the most important rock groups of the 20th century.

Yet it also threatens to derail a blockbuster rights deal that would land the group a $500m (£413m) payday.

Pink Floyd first began discussions about the sale of their back catalogue in May last year, seeking to capitalise on what was then a boom in music rights deals. Artists including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and more recently Justin Bieber have all sold the rights to their songs in deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. 

The Pink Floyd auction has attracted interest from a number of potential industry buyers including record labels Sony, Warner, Concord and BMG. Blackstone-backed songs fund Hipgnosis looked at the deal early on before backing out.

Talks have now ground to a halt, with a source at one bidder describing the process as “stalled”. Another interested party says Patrick McKenna, the media dealmaker overseeing the auction, has stopped responding to their emails.

The stalling negotiations can be pinned largely on an internecine dispute that stretches back decades. 

Music business writer Eamonn Forde describes Pink Floyd as a “long art project based around passive aggression”. However, this week the aggression spilled out into the open.

Novelist Polly Samson, who is Gilmour’s wife and wrote lyrics for many of Pink Floyd’s songs, launched a Twitter attack on Waters, branding him an anti-Semite, misogynist, tax avoider and Putin apologist. “Every word demonstrably true,” Gilmour chimed in.

The accusations followed an interview Waters gave to a Berlin newspaper comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and describing the US as the “main aggressor” in the Ukraine war. 

On Wednesday he appeared at the UN Security Council at Russia’s invitation, prompting the Ukrainian envoy to dismiss him pointedly as “another brick in the wall”.

Waters has rejected Samson’s characterisation, branding it “incendiary and wildly inaccurate”. 

In a further sign of deteriorating relations, Waters this week told the Telegraph that he has re-recorded The Dark Side of the Moon from scratch, cutting his bandmates out in the process.

With relations so fraught, the prospect of agreeing a deal to sell Pink Floyd’s music rights seems far-fetched. The band had been hoping to share as much as $500m between them.

Pink Floyd are not the first group to experience this problem: The Beatles and the Ramones, and their heirs, were both embroiled in disputes over rights.

Pink Floyd’s furore is putting off some potential buyers of their back catalogue, who risk having their name dragged into the row. Waters’ comments in particular pose an acute reputational risk given the hostility in the West towards Russia. 

One bidder insists that his views are “not unusual”, but admits that Samson’s tweet poured “gasoline on the fire”.

However, it is not simply the public rift between Waters’ views and the rift between he and Gilmour that threaten to scuttle the deal.

Tax has been another sticking point: Waters is domiciled in the US, while the other two surviving band members are based in the UK. Bidders and analysts say this has been a complicating factor in the negotiations.

A more fundamental barrier is the $500m price tag. 

“The real issue is that the price appears too high,” says Alice Enders at Enders Analysis. “Really what people are looking at is comparable deals, and it does seem like a lot.”

By comparison, Bob Dylan’s songs are estimated to have sold for around $300m. Bruce Springsteen sold his back catalogue for a reported $550m in 2021, though this included both recorded and publishing rights.

The auction includes Pink Floyd’s recorded rights but not the publishing rights. This means that while the buyer would gain control of the recorded songs, they would not own the compositions themselves.

There are other hurdles too. Pink Floyd have always been protective of their music, launching a legal battle against EMI in 2010 claiming the label had no right to release songs individually instead of as part of a full album. This practice – known as “unbundling” – has become more and more commonplace in the streaming age.

Investors often look to monetise back catalogues they buy by placing them in media such as films, TV shows and games in a bit to generate more plays. Pink Floyd’s track record suggests this may be difficult.

Unlike other classic artists, such as the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd are also no longer touring, making it harder to introduce their music to a new generation of listeners.

Finally, the global economic winds have changed direction since the auction was first launched.

When interest rates were low, investors were attracted to music back catalogues as an alternative asset class that generated returns not tied to economic conditions: old songs continued to generate royalties thanks to the rise of streaming of both TV and music.

Yet with interest rates now rising and the world teething on the brink of recession, deals like these look increasingly risky and expensive.

Forde says the market is “really at its peak”.

“People are buying up these rights because they expect them to keep growing in value,” he says. “The immediate concern is just how much can this really accelerate – the kind of feverish, febrile competition between really a handful of people – and how many huge catalogues really are left?”

Bidders insist that despite the challenges, the deal is not yet dead in the water. However, dealmaker McKenna is said to have been aiming to complete an auction by the end of last summer. 

After months of stalled negotiations and an increasingly bellicose dispute, the warring members of Pink Floyd still appear to be poles apart.

Enders says: “The master rights holders simply cannot agree on the basic parameters of the sale.”

Forde puts it more bluntly: “Can you write a cheque big enough to make them forget they dislike each other?”

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