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The Future of Hipgnosis Goes to Voters: What We Know (So Far)

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Thursday could be a pivotal moment in the history of Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which went public in 2018, raising $260 million, and helped legitimize song catalogs as an investment vehicle. At 10 am, shareholders will gather at United House, a stylish workspace in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, to vote on the continuation of the publicly listed investment trust – essentially, whether to continue or wind down the fund – and a $440 million catalog sale meant to improve its struggling share price.  

All signs point to shareholders rejecting both the continuation and the proposed sale of song catalogs to Hipgnosis’ Blackstone-backed sister fund. A failure of the continuation vote isn’t an immediate death knell for the fund – the board will have six months to present investors with a plan to right the ship – but it will never be the same.  

If the continuation vote fails, Merck Mercuriadis, the former Elton John and Guns N’ Roses manager who founded the company and became its often provocative public face, will probably continue as the public fund’s investment advisor. But he will be working with a different board of directors at Hipgnosis Songs Fund after two directors, Andrew Wilkinson and Paul Burger, resigned on Wednesday (Oct. 25) and the board’s chair Andrew Sutch signaled he will leave before the next annual meeting. The resulting changes will likely mean more scrutiny over Mercuriadis’ management of its 65,000-song catalog, which includes compositions by Neil Young, Shakira and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

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Mercuriadis has already conceded some ground by accepting a reduced fee for managing the fund’s portfolio if the catalog sale goes through. But Mercuriadis still has the backing of the current board, plus the confidence of many shareholders. “Despite the fact that there’s lots of commentary around governance, conflicts of interest, value achieved, we see no criticism at all for Hipgnosis [Song Management] to actually do its job of managing the portfolio,” says Shavar Halberstadt, a London-based investment trusts analyst at Winterflood Investment Trusts.  

As other shareholders see it, Hipgnosis Songs Fund has committed a string of unforced errors that has undercut investors’ confidence in its leadership. “I think all trust left the building, quite frankly, a while ago,” says Stifel analyst Sachin Saggar. “I have not spoken to an investor at this point — and I’ve spoken to quite a few — where any of them have any sense of confidence, trust in the current board, or the [investment] manager, frankly.” 

Last week, Hipgnosis Songs Fund canceled an upcoming dividend payment to keep from breaching a debt covenant. According to the board of directors, the decision came after the independent portfolio valuer, Citrin Cooperman, cut its estimate for a retroactive royalty payment related to the Copyright Royalty Board’s decision to raise publishers’ royalty rates from subscription streaming services for the period 2018 to 2022. It wasn’t the first time: In 2021, Hipgnosis Songs Fund committed what it termed an “inadvertent breach” of a credit facility restriction. 

Another blow to shareholders’ trust in the board came in 2022 when Hipgnosis Songs Fund refinanced its revolving credit facility to reduce its interest margin and provide greater financial flexibility. Many other companies refinanced debt in 2020 and 2021 to take advantage of low interest rates in the early days of the pandemic. “They waited too long and then the process took very long,” says Halberstadt. 

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More recently, Hipgnosis Songs Fund’s steps to address its flagging share price have attracted criticism. In September, the company announced a plan to raise $465 million by selling two catalogs — one with a $440 million deal with Hipgnosis Songs Capital, a joint venture of the public fund’s investment advisor and the investment giant Blackstone. If the sale is approved, the proceeds will fund debt reduction and share buybacks to reduce the 60% gap between the current share price and the company’s per-share net asset value (the valuation of its catalog of music rights). But sources tell Billboard that investors will likely vote no to the deal on Thursday. 

With the sale price 17.5% below the catalog’s latest valuation, shareholders questioned whether the Blackstone-backed entity was getting a favorable deal, as well as if the process for soliciting other bids was transparent enough. Hipgnosis Songs Fund’s board said at the time that it created “appropriate governance arrangements and information barriers” to properly conduct a sale between two related parties. 

The fund’s board said on Tuesday it received one outside offer after talks with 17 prospective buyers, but that ultimately the external parties said “they could not justify” a higher offer price than the $440 million offered by Hipgnosis Songs Capital.  

“The shareholders are very upset with the capital stance, the dividend cut, the strategic review, and the related party transaction, and they are highly likely to vote against continuation on Thursday,” predicts Matthew Hose, a London-based  analyst for Jeffries. Analysts at Investec encouraged shareholders to vote against both continuation “in order to reinforce the point that the status quo is not an option,” they wrote in an Oct. 19 note to investors. Alternative Value Investors Limited, which owns a 5% stake in Hipgnosis Songs Fund, also encouraged other shareholders to vote against both continuation and the catalog sale in an Oct. 16 letter.  

If the continuation vote fails, the board has six months to create a proposal “for the reconstruction, reorganization or winding-up” of the fund, according to its prospectus. “If shareholders vote against continuation on Thursday, it’s almost like it’s the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end,” says Hose. AVI spoke to “a majority” of shareholders and found none are in favor of an immediate portfolio sale, wrote AVI head of research Tom Treanor

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Despite their frustration, Hipgnosis Songs Fund’s investors aren’t looking for a nuclear option. Rather, shareholders want new leadership on the board and an orderly process, says Saggar. “Nobody is looking at blowing this up. Nobody is looking to do this in a nonsensical way.” AVI emphasized this point in an attempt to sway undecided shareholders. “Voting against continuation should not be perceived as a negative stance to take,” wrote Treanor. 

Even if shareholders eventually push to wind down Hipgnosis Songs Fund, there are questions about what amount the catalog could fetch for shareholders. While Hipgnosis Songs Fund has reported that its portfolio is valued at $2.8 billion, sources tell Billboard that its lenders likely value it closer to $1.8 billion, or what banks estimate they could get for the assets in a distressed sale. Two sources tell Billboard they predict the portfolio’s value to be somewhere between those two numbers.  

To appease shareholders ahead of the vote, changes to Hipgnosis Songs Fund’s governance are already underway. The board recently hired an executive search firm to aid in finding Sutch’s replacement on the board, and Wilkinson and Berger’s resignations are effective immediately. The board intends to appoint Cindy Rampersaud, an independent non-executive director, to replace Wilkinson as chair of the audit and risk management committees. 

In exchange for voting yes to continue the fund, the board has also offered shareholders the right to vote on continuation again in 2026 and 2028, giving them more opportunities to push for change than the standard five-year window between continuation votes typical of U.K. investment trusts. Also, Hipgnosis Songs Fund says it will terminate the investment advisor’s contract if the share price’s discount to NAV is 10% or more for the month of January 2025. Given the current share price — Hipgnosis Songs Fund shares are current trading at 60% below NAV — that could mean the investment advisor receives a 12-month notice in fewer than 15 months from now.    

But getting rid of Mercuriadis would create challenges that shareholders might want to avoid. If Mercuriadis departs and Hipgnosis Songs Management is unable to find a replacement satisfactory to the public company’s lenders within 90 days, Hipgnosis Songs Fund would be in default and lenders may demand repayment of all amounts in the revolving credit facility, according to the company’s prospectus. Also, Hipgnosis Songs Management retains an option to acquire Hipgnosis Songs Fund’s portfolio if its investment advisory contract is canceled. When the board initiated a strategic review last week — another move to appease shareholders ahead of the annual meeting — it asked Hipgnosis Songs Management to remove the clause from its contract but was rebuffed. The option to purchase could be problematic for investors who want to maximize bids on the catalog.

“If you didn’t have that option, you could run an open sales process,” says Hose. “Will that option prevent others from bidding?” 

Hipgnosis Songs Fund was initially pitched to investors as a source of reliable returns from classic, successful songs during a streaming-led boom in royalties, the Guernsey-based company monetizes proven song catalog and pays dividends. That catalog is seen as the company’s biggest strength and holds more opportunity as streaming expands globally and music businesses explore new ways to monetize their catalogs. But all signs point to shareholders needing more trust in how Hipgnosis Songs Fund is governed.  

“The company has a bright future,” writes AVI’s Treanor. “And that may well be with the current manager on revised terms should a new board decide so following consultations with shareholders. But we do, however, strongly believe that a reset is urgently required.”

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