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‘Bowie Bonds’ blazed a trail through capital markets

A portrait taken on May 13, 1983 shows British singer David Bowie during a press conference at the 36th Cannes Film Festival.
Ralph Gatti | AFP | Getty Images

Just as he blazed a trail through the world of rock'n'roll, David Bowie's dalliance with the stock market gave the world something it had never seen before — pop bonds.

In 1997 he sold $55m of "Bowie Bonds", asset-backed securities that were backed by the current and future revenues of the 25 albums he recorded before 1990.

Rather than getting steady income from the revenues of his back catalogue — including records such as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Let's Dance — the bonds allowed Bowie to borrow more money up front.

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This was possible because, unlike many acts at the time, Bowie owned the rights to all of his songs.

Investors received interest of 7.9 per cent for the 10-year bond.

The deal coincided with a licensing agreement allowing EMI to re-release the 25 albums made between 1969 and 1990 — with Bowie guaranteed more than 25 per cent of the royalties from wholesale sales in the US.

The bond issue was masterminded by banker David Pullman, a US financier who carved out a niche securitising music stars' back catalogues.

Although Bowie was his first big deal, Mr Pullman went on to work with James Brown, Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers, trademarking the financial instruments as "Pullman Bonds".

But the rise of peer-to-peer music sharing service Napster blew a hole in copyright legislation, causing artists and the industry to fear for their financial future.

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In 2004, with physical CD sales being cannibalised by piracy and the rise of online music services, Moody's cut the credit rating of Bowie Bonds to BBB+ — one notch above junk status.

The credit agency blamed "lower than expected revenues generated by the assets due to weakness in sales for recorded music" at the time.

Although the move caused consternation among investors, who had been guaranteed rock solid returns by Mr Pullman, the bonds still had a higher rating than junk-rated EMI.

The success of the Bowie Bonds was one of the factors underpinning Guy Hands' ill-fated 2007 bid for EMI.

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The private equity mogul, who had achieved success securitising the returns of pubs and motorway service areas, believed that EMI's vast back catalogue was ripe for the Bowie Bond treatment.

The following year, with the financial crash and the collapse of the credit markets, Mr Hands abandoned the idea after being unable to spread the risk of the £4.2bn takeover.

Bowie's record label, however, still managed to find ways to squeeze fresh income from his older material.

In 2010 — seven years since the most recent new Bowie album was released — it unveiled a deluxe box set vinyl edition of the 1976 album Station to Station, with memorabilia pushing the price tag to £80.