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.