If you want to make a ton of money in the music industry, you need to learn how to write a song. Actually it’s not enough to write just any song, you need to write a HIT song. Earlier this week we wrote an article about whether or not it’s possible to retire off the royalties from one song like Hugh Grant’s character in the movie “About A Boy”. We concluded that not only was it possible, but if you manage to write a song that has longevity, you can retire with a bloody fortune. In that same article, we listed the 10 “richest” songs of all time. These songs have produced enough money through royalties, endorsements and other streams of income to make the song writers (and their heirs) extremely wealthy. The list was so interesting that we decided it deserved it’s own article with more details.
If you’re interested in making a lot of money off songwriting, remember these three tricks:
1) Write a Christmas song.
2) Write a timeless love song.
3) Get your song featured in a movie.
And if you really want to hit the jackpot, write a Christmas love song that gets featured in a movie! So without further delay, let’s take a look at the 10 richest songs of all time:
The 10 Richest Songs Of All Time:
10. Mel Torme – “The Christmas Song” (1944). Estimated earnings: $19 million.
You probably know this song by its opening line “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”. Ironically, Torme is Jewish and wrote the music and the song in under 45 minutes during a blistering hot Chicago summer. He was just 19 years old. The song has since been covered by hundreds of huge artists including Michael Buble, Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, NSYNC and many more. Despite having written more than 250 songs during his career, “The Christmas Song” was by far Mel’s biggest financial success. He often referred to it as “my annuity”.
9. Roy Orbison & Bill Dees – “Oh Pretty Woman” (1964). Estimated earnings: $19.75 million
As we mentioned above, one of the best ways to make a ton of money off a song is to get it featured in major Hollywood movie. Better yet, get a major Hollywood movie to name itself after your song. That’s obviously what happened for Roy Orbison and Bill Dees’ 1964 tune “Oh Pretty Woman”. The song was a huge hit in its own right 25 years before the Richard Gere/Julia Roberts feature film, but clearly the movie is responsible for much of the songs lasting popularity today. Right before his death in 2012, Bill Dees told a reporter that he was still earning $100-$200 thousand per year in royalties off “Oh Pretty Woman”, nearly 50 years later.
8. Sting – “Every Breath You Take” (1983). Estimated earnings: $20.5 million
Sting’s classic song about an unhealthy obsession with a lost love, was one of the biggest hits of 1983 having spent eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Billboard ranked “Every Breath You Take” at #25 on their list of the top 100 songs of all time. In 1997, the song received a huge re-boot in popularity when Puff Daddy released his cover tribute to the late rapper Notorious BIG “I’ll Be Missing You”. Diddy’s version would go on to win a Grammy and become one of the best selling singles of all time with more 7 million copies sold worldwide. In 2010, Sting’s former business manager claimed that this song is responsible for more than 1/4 of all the singer’s lifetime publishing income and today still produces $2000 a day ($730,000 per year) in royalties income for Sting.
Songwriting for “Every Breath You Take” is credited 100% to Sting (AKA Gordon Sumner). When Diddy produced his version, he forgot to ask for permission first which allowed Sting to demand and receive an unheard of 100% of the remix’s publishing royalties (the standard would have been 25-50%). Interestingly, the only part of the original Police song that Diddy actually sampled was Andy Summer’s guitar riff. Neither Sting’s vocals nor Stewart Copeland’s drum can be heard anywhere on “I’ll Be Missing You”. Because Sting is listed as the sole composer, Summers did not receive a dime in royalties from P Diddy and was not even consulted for his blessing. In fact, Summers was not even aware of the song until his son heard it on the radio. In a recent interview, Andy Summers called Puff Daddy’s song “the major rip-off of all time”. Furthermore, he elaborated: “He actually sampled my guitar, and that’s what he based his whole track on. Stewart’s not on it. Sting’s not on it. I’d be walking round Tower Records, and the fucking thing would be playing over and over. It was very bizarre while it lasted.”
7. Haven Gillespie & Fred J Coots – “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (1934). Estimated earnings: $25 million
The second of three Christmas songs on this list. The day after the song debuted, over 100,000 people ordered copies of the sheet music. 400,000 copies had sold within a few months. The song has been covered by a wide range of artists including Justin Bieber, Bruce Springsteen and Mariah Carey.
6. Ben E King, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller – “Stand By Me” (1961). Estimated earnings: $27 million
Similar to song #9 on this list, “Stand By Me” was a huge hit in its own time then topped the charts again 20 years later when the movie by the same name was released in 1986.
5. Alex North & Hy Zaret – “Unchained Melody” (1955). Estimated earnings: $27.5 million
Originally penned as the theme for a little known 1955 prison movie “Unchained”, this song would eventually become one of the most covered songs in recorded history. Since 1955, “Unchained Melody” has been covered by more than 650 different artists. The most famous cover is the 1965 version by The Righteous Brothers which, like many songs on this list, received a major boost in popularity when it was used in the 1990 Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze Oscar winning film “Ghost”.
4. John Lennon and Paul McCartney – “Yesterday” (1965). Estimated earnings: $30 million
From the birth of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and John Lennon agreed to share credit for all of their songs 50/50, no matter how little the other person contributed. That meant even though Paul wrote and sang 100% of “Yesterday”, it was credited to “Lennon-McCartney”. “Yesterday” would go on to be the second most played song in the history of radio and would be covered by over 2200 different musicians. As John’s sole heir, Yoko Ono has earned millions in royalties from the song. and despite Paul’s repeated pleas, has refused to surrender credit. In 2000, McCartney asked Yoko for permission to could change the credit to “McCartney-Lennon”, she refused.
3. Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Specter – “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” (1964).Estimated earnings: $32 million
Husband and wife songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote this song with legendary producer (and convicted murderer) Phil Specter. Specter insisted, against the couple’s wishes, that they add the now famous line “and he is gone, gone, gone, Whoa, whoa, whoa”. Similar to the #5 song on this list, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” became a massive hit after it was covered by The Righteous Brothers. It also received a massive re-boot in popularity as part of the soundtrack to the 1986 Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun”. The song would eventually be covered by more than 2200 different artists around the world and become the most played song in radio history.
2. Irving Berlin – “White Christmas” (1940). Estimated earnings: $36 million
No song captures the heart of the holidays like “White Christmas”. This is ironic when you consider the fact that it was written by a Jewish immigrant from Russia. Bing Crosby’s version is by far the most famous but countless other artists have recorded the song. Crosby’s version is one of the best selling pieces of music in history, with over 100 million copies sold worldwide to date.
1.Hill Sisters – “Happy Birthday” (1893). Estimated earnings: $50 million
In 1893, the Hill sisters needed a song for their kindergarten class to sing on birthdays. Fast forward 120 years and “Happy Birthday” is by far the richest and most profitable song of all time. The Ownership of “Happy Birthday” has changed hands a few times in the last 100 years. Music holding company Warner Chappell bought the rights for $15 million in 1990. Today the song brings in $2 million a year in royalties ($5000 per day). It costs $25,000 to use the song in a movie or TV show which explains why you often see actors sing an odd, amalgamated version on screen. This also explains why chain restaurants sing their own custom songs for a guest’s birthday. You may not even realize, but it’s technically illegal to sing the song in a large group of unrelated people (like an office party) without paying a royalty to the current copyright holder Warner Music Group (which is owned by a private corporate conglomerate called Access Industries). The copyright for “Happy Birthday” expires in 2030 in the United States and 2016 in the European Union, at which point we can all finally sing Happy Birthday without writing a royalty check.