Over the course of a career that’s now touched down in eight decades, composer Burt Bacharach has crafted songs with a raft of stellar creative partners.
First and foremost was his long, fruitful association with lyricist Hal David, which extended from the late 1950s into the early ‘70s and yielded hit after hit after hit, including “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “The Look of Love,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “Alfie” and “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me.”
After he and David parted ways, Bacharach teamed with songwriter Carole Bayer Sager (whom he married, then divorced), as well as Neil Diamond, R&B veteran Ronald Isley, Paul Anka, Ray Parker Jr. and even England’s erstwhile angry young man Elvis Costello (Bacharach calls their song “Painted From Memory” “one of the best things I ever did”).
So what untried collaboration could possibly pique his interest today, at age 91? How about a Bacharach-Eilish team-up?
“I would love that,” Bacharach said from the Pacific Palisades home he shares with his wife of 27 years, the former Jane Hansen, expressing his admiration for the work of pop music’s hippest and most-Grammy-winning 18-year-old — Billie Eilish — and her producer, co-writer and sibling Finneas O’Connell.
At this point, the notion is only a tantalizing fantasy. But his enthusiasm at the suggestion telegraphs Bacharach’s undiminished desire to seek out collaborators who can bring not just fresh ideas, but ideas with some essence of the eternal about them.
“The way I always wrote was not normal,” he said. “It was maybe a little sophisticated, maybe a little urban. Maybe it had more stamina, more lasting value. But to have a song 40 years later still sound appealing and relevant, I’m very grateful for that. How it came to be like that, I don’t know if I can say.”
This career self-assessment is sparked, in part, by a new contract Bacharach is entering into with Primary Wave Music, a relative upstart in the music publishing world that is leveraging dizzying amounts of money to invest in prestigious song catalogs, Bacharach’s being something of a Hope Diamond in music publishing circles.
“If you’re in the publishing business, Burt Bacharach has to be up there with some of the greatest of all time,” Primary Wave founder and CEO Larry Mestel said about his new 50-50 partnership with Bacharach, citing the new deal as one of the company’s flagship partnerships.
A source with knowledge of the deal says it’s valued in “the high eight figures.”
With a consortium of what he described as “very large institutional investors and some high net-worth individuals,” Mestel said Primary Wave, which is privately held, has consolidated a fund of “about $1 billion in assets and cash under management now” to invest in song catalogs, which includes those of Smokey Robinson, Aerosmith, Boston and Paul Anka, as well as the estates of Whitney Houston, reggae superstar Bob Marley, Leon Russell and Donny Hathaway.
“It’s a big business,” he said. “We think the value is extraordinary. Most people in the record end of the business don’t understand the value of publishing.”
Some recent developments in technology and consumption, however, have made more and more investors and companies focus attention on that end of the music business.
Music streaming, led by Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, has extended and amplified the financial life of older songs, known as catalog in the music industry. Today, songs from yesteryear are easily accessed, and songwriters and their publishing companies get paid with every click. Each time you stream your favorite “dinner music” playlist with “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” Bacharach is compensated.
In 2018, publishing revenue from music streaming outpaced royalties generated from all physical media and download sales. The same year, the U.S. Copyright Board approved a nearly 50% increase in rates of payment to songwriters from streaming, official recognition of the dominance of streaming across the board in the music business. Streaming platforms including Spotify and YouTube also have upped the publishing rates paid to songwriters in part because of pressure exerted by superstar acts going public over social media about paltry payments-per-stream from those services.
It’s also sparked high-profile, if confidential, publishing deals for superstar acts such as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, both of whom negotiated new contracts this year with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, the world’s largest publisher.
“I always felt that the music copyright publishing business is similar to the alcohol business,” Sony/ATV Publishing’s then-chairman Martin Bandier told The Times in 2018. “In bad times, you drink, and in good times, you drink; and in bad times, you play music — you might play a different type of music — and in good times, you play music.
“Our business is growing, competition is incredibly keen, and there is so much money floating around that wants to own content,” Bandier said. “And what better content can there be than songs?”
For Bacharach, songwriting is a never-ending process. Most recently, he has been working with songwriter-producer Daniel Tashian, a two-time Grammy winner for his production work on Kacey Musgraves’ 2018 album, “Golden Hour,” and Texas indie-pop singer-songwriter Melody Federer. He just recorded a new song he wrote with Federer, “The Great Divide,” which extends his penchant in the last couple of decades for songs more overtly political than those that characterized his classic work with David.
He continues to perform his own music and at the moment is weighing whether to travel for a planned tour of Japan in April because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“I can’t imagine how it might be,” he said. “You don’t want to have an audience sitting there and everybody wearing face masks.”
Bacharach said the coronavirus crisis has left him less than impressed with messaging out of the White House. “We do need somebody really strong guiding us through the fire here, man. We’ve had it with this guy saying ‘Everything’s OK — buy stocks.”
In addition to writing and performing, one other scenario that interests Bacharach is a theatrical production built on his songs, something the alignment with Primary Wave may help realize.
“That’s a distinct possibility,” he replied. “But it would have to have a real story behind it. If it gets away from the jukebox musical formula of songs just strung together, that could be interesting. I’ve been through that kind of thing maybe twice, of somebody trying it in New York.
“I remember sitting in a theater years ago for one that was just a series of songs without much plot,” he said. “On one side of me was Elvis Costello, and on the other was [actor-comedian] Mike Myers. They’re my friends, and they were suffering like I was suffering, elbowing my ribs.
“But a show with a good story line could be created around it,” he said of his extensive song catalog. “I’m excited about it.”
About Bacharach’s body of work, Primary Wave’s Mestel puts it in the clearest of terms. “I think he’s possibly the greatest songwriter of all time.”