The 10 Richest Songs of All Time
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The 10 Richest Songs of All Time

By Dustin Rowles | Seriously Random Lists | October 8, 2013 | Comments ()


I have no idea how I stumbled upon this article, which I had bookmarked six months ago to save for a slow news day. Basically, a guy over on CelebrityNetworth wondered if, like Hugh Grant’s character in About a Boy, someone could theoretically live comfortably on the royalties of one pop song for the rest of his life. Turns out, if that song is big enough, then yes he can. Easily.

He then took a look at the 10 richest songs in the world, based on a list compiled for a list show that aired on the BBC last year. It’s a fascinating list that demonstrates that the key to writing a song that will fetch an enormous sum in royalties is to be sappy, be ever-present in movies, and/or a Christmas song.

10. Mel Torme — “Christmas Song” (1944). Estimated earnings: $19 million. This is the most performed Christmas song of all time. Everyone has covered it, from Nat King Cole to Clay Aiken to Bob Dylan.

9. Roy Orbison & Bill Dees — “Oh Pretty Woman” (1964). Estimated earnings: $19.75 million. The song didn’t hit Gold until five years after its release, and Roy Orbison didn’t win a Grammy for it until nearly 30 years after its release (for a new live recording). Royalties do not, however, include winnings from a lawsuit against 2 Live Crew, wherein the Supreme Court expanded the doctrine of fair use and extended its protections to parodies.

8. Sting — “Every Breath You Take” (1983). Estimated earnings: $20.5 million. It’s estimated that this one song accounts for up to one-third of all of the Police’s royalty income. Despite the fact that it’s been rated as the second best break-up song ever, it’s still very commonly played in weddings, much to the dismay of Sting, who once said, “I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.”

7. Haven Gillespie & Fred J Coots — “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (1934). Estimated earnings: $25 million. Some of those royalties actually come from Bruce Springsteen, who recorded it as a B-side to his “My Hometown” single from his album Born in the U.S.A..

6. Ben E King, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller — “Stand By Me” (1961). Estimated earnings: $27 million. More than 400 artists have recorded covers, but Ben. E. King’s version stands as the most popular, hitting the Billboard Top Ten twice, in 1961 and again in 1986, when Rob Reiner’s movie of the same name was released.

5. Alex North & Hy Zaret — “Unchained Melody” (1955). Estimated earnings: $27.5 million. Simon Cowell once said that this was his favorite song, so in addition to all the covers, the songwriters also get royalties every time someone on one of Cowell’s singing competitions uses it to try and impress the judge.

4. John Lennon and Paul McCartney — “Yesterday” (1965). Estimated earnings: $30 million. There are more than 2,200 covers of this song, including one by Bob Dylan, who recorded it despite the fact that he expressed a disdain for the song’s mawkishness. (Dylan’s version, however, was not released.)

3. Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Specter — “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” (1964). Estimated earnings: $32 million. BMI asserts that this song was the most played song in America during the entire 20th century. It is also terrible.

2. Irving Berlin — “White Christmas” (1940). Estimated earnings: $36 million. The most popular version of this song, of course, is from Bing Crosby, and I can’t hear it without thinking about allegations (by Crosby’s son) that Crosby was an abusive alcoholic, and that two of his children killed themselves two years apart by self-inflicted gunshots. It always puts a damper on my Christmas spirit.

1. Hill Sisters — “Happy Birthday” (1893). Estimated earnings: $50 million. The copyright status of this song has been one of the most heavily litigated because it is actually illegal to perform it in public without paying royalties. However, the copyright on the song will finally expire in 2016.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Gord Reid

    Don't get too psyched about Happy Birthday hitting public domain in 3 years. Count on Sonny Bono's widow to try screwing that up yet again.

  • apsutter

    Nat King Cole's version of The Christmas Song FTW. There's just something about his version and that voice that is so special. If I'm feeling especially sentimental it will make me cry like gangbusters.

  • MissAmynae

    Nat King Cole wins at everything. His version of "Smile" will be played at my funeral. "Stardust" is one of my favorite songs.

  • Pat C

    Dave Marsh picked "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" as #5 in his 1989 book THE HEART OF ROCK & SOUL: THE 1001 GREATEST SINGLES EVER MADE. Goes to show once again, you can't please everybody. (Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" was #1)

  • e jerry powell

    Bob Dylan. Robert Zimmerman!

    Well, I shouldn't knock it. Barbra Streisand recorded a couple of Christmas albums, right?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I hate that Bruce Springsteen cover.

    (but I love that Rankin/Bass Christmas special!)

  • Everyone with the last name Ches(t)nut(t) knows the hell of having people sing "The Christmas" song at you year round. Dammit, Mel Torme!

  • jlc1967

    Freaky alignment of my random morning musings and Pajiba: I was just thinking a few hours ago about how, damn, if I only I could write one good song, I'd be set. I grew up in Nashville so maybe it was transmitted in the water, but it seems we always knew that the thing to be was a successful songwriter -- JUST ONE GOOD SONG and you're set. The Wash Post Reliable Source this morning? yesterday morning? had a little piece about the guy who wrote "Take me home, country roads" (a big hit at the German embassy); he makes $200,000 a year on that. $200K every freaking year for one *old* song.

  • This explains how I wound up singing "Take me home, country roads" in a tiny bar in Grobenzell, Germany with a crowd of rowdy Bayern Munich fans this past Summer. The crowd of older folks wanted to show us American girls they knew a song with a U.S. state in it. Germans are crazy for John Denver!

  • Guest

    I love "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" precisely because it's ridiculous. It's fun to sing along to, and basically harmless.

    But full disclosure, The Righteous Brothers were the first band I ever saw live, so maybe that has something to do with it.

  • oilybohunk7

    I used to work at a hotel, I was really excited because the Righteous Brothers were gong to be staying there. I blocked all of their rooms and made their keys for their checkin. The next morning my mom woke me up and told me that I was going to have a bad day at work because one of the Righteous Brothers died at my hotel. In the room I put him in.

  • Guest

    OMG, that is awful.

  • apsutter

    Just hope that you don't hear it for the first time during a particularly sad time in your life. When my parents marriage was breaking apart and my dad was completely heartbroken he took me to a concert where they covered it and it was just so damned sad and apt for the situation.

  • Guest

    Oh, that is sad. I'm sorry!

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    "Every Breath You Take" is one of my favourite creep songs. Just so you guys know, if you ever hear it very softly, just at the edge of your perception, I'm not in the bushes outside your window or across the street with night vision goggles.

  • Fredo

    You know what song I forgot to add to that list from a few weeks back? "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer.

    I mean: "The lights are on, but you're not home...Your mind is not your own...your heart sweats....your body aches...another kiss is what it can't eat, you can't sleep...there's no doubt, you're in deep...your throat is can't breathe...another kiss is all you need"

    Now tell me that isn't stalker/date rapist material.

  • LexieW

    F*ck you for ruining my absolute favorite Christmas song with that story about Bing Crosby.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Oh yes, he was a truly messed up parent of the "break my child down to make him strong" variety.

  • sunset&camden

    No kidding! I feel like putting a damper on Christmas spirit is putting it mildly.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Say your name in Debbie Reynolds voice three times and I defy you to remain dampered.

  • sunset&camden

    Haha, it's true, that's why I picked it. "Here we are! Sunset and Camden!" You should all try it.

  • Guest

    Yeah, my Bing Crosby love has diminished to almost nothing in light of the allegations. It sucks, but what can you do?

  • BWeaves

    How exactly do the royalties get paid? If I'm at a karaoke bar and sing "Yesterday" do I have to pay the Beatles $2.00, or does the bar pay them, or is there some middle man? It just seems to me that once a song is out there, it must be a bitch to get paid every time it's performed.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    Oh, I'm sure you didn't mean to make me so happy, but you have. I love being useful.

    For bars and other public performance venues, writers are paid a public performance royalty through Performing Rights Organizations like ASCAP and BMI. The venue (or store, gym, bar, etc.) gets a blanket license with a rate determined by their business type and size, and then ASCAP or BMI makes payments to the artists they represent based on the venue's reported play logs, generally split 50/50 between the artist and their publishing company. Some streaming music services will include the cost of a license with their service price to take all the guess work out. Right now only composers are paid for each performance except in the realm of digital radio, satellite radio, and services like Spotify or Muve. Those licenses are either negotiated individually with artists and labels (if the service is interactive, where you can pick songs, build playlists, etc.) or the royalties are handled through SoundExchange* which collects fees from the services as well as their play-logs and breaks up the money based on the recordings reported to them. The money is split 50% to the record label, 45% to the performer and 5% to a fund set up for non-featured artists (like studio musicians or session players).

    *Full disclosure: I work at SoundExchange.

  • TheReinaG

    As for the karaoke rights: the performance of those songs is covered under the public venues ASCAP and BMI fees. (Hey, you get in some huge trouble/fines if you don't pay those, I have a buddy who lost his bar for not paying for them because he's stupid) The karaoke tracks themselves are (if legally obtained) bought through another party, Soundchoice, Sunfly, Chartbusters, etc (there are like 2 dozen or more) by the venue or the karaoke company or host. Soundchoice used to be the gold standard of karaoke track providers but didn't modernize fast enough and couldn't keep up with the influx of people illegally pirating their tracks. Soundchoice then decided to sue the ever living pants off of everyone, alleging that if you don't play the tracks directly off of their CD IE even if you bought the CD and ripped it to your karaoke rig - I'll be honest, my old karaoke set up had almost a terrabyte of music, and while I owned CDs for it, hell if I'm carrying that many CDs everywhere I go - clearly you'd stolen their property. Now most karaoke tracks come from companies where English is clearly not the transcriptionist's first language.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    Yes, I don't know as much about the karaoke world so thank you for that help. It was covered in one class with a whole host of other complicated licensing situations, so it's good to hear from someone with experience.

    Part of the reason it's easier to find tracks from foreign-language companies is because US law treats the making of karaoke tracks very differently than the laws in other countries. You may have seen this covered, but if not this provides the basic info:

  • BWeaves


  • Legally Insignificant

    This makes so much sense. In law school, I hated my intellectual property class, and still no little to nothing about it. I feel like you should write a song to commemorate the death of the copyright on Happy Birthday and become a millionaire off of it. I can see it now. You can have Elton John perform it, I mean he's done songs for Marilyn Monroe, Princess Di, and Liberace. Why not Happy Birthday?

  • Mrs. Julien

    Since Genevieve is showing restraint, I won't. Here is a link to her book The Working Musician: The Essentials of the Music Business for New Artists .

  • Fredo

    Is there a reason why so many of these are Christmas songs? Is it because, unlike other seasons of the year, we play and replay the same tunes from year past during the Christmas season? I mean, we just had summer and we don't play "classic summer songs". Radios don't fill up with Beach Boys tunes (though they should). Tradition there is more to find the "song of summer XXXX".

  • Bell Swerve

    Interestingly it isn't the same for tv shows. I heard Ben Elton or Tony Robinson who did Blackadder saying the problem with doing a christmas special is they won't repeat it other times of year. So Christmas song = win, Christmas show = lose.

    The UK's Office's final scene had Tim and Dawn get together soundtracked to Yazoo's Only You - Gervais has said that when people play that clip on telly they get money as well as him, which is quite nice I think. It also made it popular again - was my cousin's first dance at his wedding a few years ago.

  • I would think it's more because the same Christmas tunes get covered over and over on pop star Christmas albums/holiday specials/etc. Radio play is less a factor in royalties than use in commercials, movies, commercial venues, and re-recordings.

  • wsapnin

    I thought I had heard that "Margaritaville" had generated more income than any other song based on the marketing/product aspects.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    For those wondering, the real money is in writing these songs since the writer will get paid for recordings made by other people, and when those recordings are licensed for use in film, TV, commercials, etc. This is how Whitney Houston helped make Dolly Parton an incredibly wealthy woman.

  • PDamian

    And this is how Linda Ronstadt ended up in a bad financial state when she could no longer sing due to Parkinson's disease. She wrote very little music, and almost none of her hits, with the result that she's not getting much in the way of royalties. A friend persuaded her to write a new memoir, which is now sitting nicely on the NYT bestsellers list. Hope to God someone negotiated her a sweet deal; she needs it.

  • Robert

    And to piggyback, the reason artists negotiate to have their names included as songwriters even when they did nothing is so they get a sliver of those sweet sweet licensing fees. So, no, Britney Spears isn't really a singer/songwriter, but her agent/manager/whoever set it in the contract from the jump that she'll be paid as such.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    Yes. Actually, "I Will Always Love You" almost had that happen to it, as the story goes that Elvis wanted to record it but Parton would have had to split the writing credit with Elvis and Colonel Parker. She refused, and people told her she was an idiot at the time. She got the last laugh, though.

  • chanohack

    Whitney contributed, but Dolly Parton has written so many songs that she'd be rolling in it even without The Bodyguard.

  • apsutter

    Yea...she's written so much, had her movie career, and still performs quite often plus she's incredibly well respected. Dolly pretty much had the perfect career

  • BigBlueKY

    thank you, as well as every department store/Wal Mart I've been in for reminding me that it's basically Christmas.

  • bastich

    Hurry! Only 77.5 shopping days left!

  • BigBlueKY

    seriously. can we at least get through Halloween? no wonder the holidays get overwhelming, I can barely swallow my Halloween candy before Santa Claus is shoving candy canes down my throat.

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