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Does the Net Worth of World's Top Recording Artists Distorts Our View of the Music Industry?

Gettyimages | Kevin Winter
By Robert Safir

Because of her impending divorce, information about Adele's net worth leaked out to the pressed. The figure reported was $184 million. Sizable, for sure, but not the highest amount compared to some other recording artists. The problem is that all these figures distort our perception of singers, songwriters, and the music industry as a whole.

Indeed, some of the earnings of top recording artists are staggering and sometimes surprising. These figures usually represent more than record sales, however. They include such things as tours, concerts, live appearances, and merchandize sales – including t-shirts, caps, posters, and more. Please don’t forget the bumper stickers.

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How Much Did You Just Say?

Lots of money
Gettyimages | KevinHyde

Let’s look at the net worth of some of the top recording artists.

Paul McCartney (net worth: $1.2 billion)

Jay-Z. Net Worth: $1 Billion

Celine Dion. Net Worth: $800 Million

Bono(net worth: $700 million)

Madonna (net worth: $590 million)

Mariah Carey (net worth: $520 million)

Elton John (net worth: $500 million)

Dolly Parton (net worth: $500 million)

Gloria Estefan (net worth: $500 million)

With a net worth of $1.2 billion, Paul McCartney is considered the richest recording artist of all time. He was not just the singer on many of the songs, he was also the songwriter, a reliable source of income

Music Publishing

Sir Paul McCartney
Wikimedia | https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_McCartney_ACL18051018-169_(44619444435).jpg

Publishing the music is an additional revenue source to writing and performing the music. The publishing rights to John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songs are owned by Sony/ATV Music Publishing. In 1985, Michael Jackson bought ATV Music for a reported $47.5 million. In 1995, Jackson found himself in financial trouble and he sold half of ATV to Sony Music for $95 million, creating Sony/ATV Music Publishing. By 2006, Michael Jackson had sold another 25% to Sony.

Paul McCartney was furious that Michael Jackson ever acquired the publishing rights to the Beatles catalog and he sued Sony/ATV Music Publishing to reclaim his rights to the music under the US Copyright Act of 1976.

Last year Sony and Paul McCartney entered into a “confidential settlement agreement.” Presumably, sometime in 2018 McCartney will start getting the publisher’s share to his songs back after the 56-year period. In other words, McCartney was successful in his lawsuit, likely getting some cash at the signing of the agreement and then getting his publishing rights back after Sony/ATV Music’s ownership ends in the future.

Exceptional Music

The Beatles
Wikimedia | https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Beatles_(with_Jimmy_Nicol)_1964_001.png

Paul McCartney is more the exception rather than the rule when it comes to his net worth and his ability to continue making money on his rights as a songwriter/artist, and with future monies coming in from the publishing rights. Keep in mind that his (and John’s) songs were incredible popular and continue to make huge sums of money today – even if he doesn’t lift a finger. The Beatles music stands the test of time more than any other music on the market – appealing to multiple generations of listeners.

The songwriter/artists that line up in net worth right behind McCartney are very wealthy as well. But their net worth is unlikely to catch up with Sir Paul’s. After all, some of them are ‘only’ worth a half a billion dollars.

'Typical Earnings'

Card representing Spotify
Unsplash | Markus Spiske

The ‘typical songwriter’s earnings are another story completely. Assuming the songwriter is somewhat successful, they can make money from record sales (CDs, LPs, etc.). These ‘mechanical’ royalties pay $0.091 per song.

‘Performance royalties’ come from AM and FM radio, network television, cable television, live gig venues, retail stores, bars, restaurants, and so on. Those rates vary according to the agency collecting these royalties, usually from ASCAP or BMI.

Streaming royalties come from the song being streamed through an interactive service, such as Spotify, Rhapsody, and more. The payment for these is – get ready - the average rate per stream is about $0.005. There can be millions upon millions of streams that only amount to a couple of hundred dollars in royalties. .

'Average Earnings'

Street musician
Unsplash | Jacek Dylag

Below the successful songwriters and/or artists you have your ‘average’ ones. These are the ‘struggling’ artists who record demos, get rejected by a few labels, write new music, record again, and get rejected again by a few more labels. Sometimes, if they’re lucky and with persistence, they can eventually break through and find some level of success - but mostly it’s barely enough to make a living. For the same reason you find aspiring actors waiting tables, you will find the aspiring singer/songwriter/recording artist taking on a variety of jobs just to keep hanging in there.

The misconception prevalent in society is that anyone in the music business makes a lot of money. Another misconception is that it’s ‘fun.’ Yes, sometimes it can be fun, but mostly it’s a lot of very hard work. And by any measure it is a struggle. So when you see millions – or even billions – of dollars going to recording artists or songwriters, remember that these millionaires are the highest earners of all. A lot of the rest of the music folks are mopping floors – as long as there’s no global COVID-19 pandemic going on.

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