One of the biggest gripes with the talents unearthed by shows such as the X-Factor, American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent etc is that the nature of these programmes start artistes on the wrong path. Spending their most creative early years singing covers of other people’s songs, or songs created by their labels in-house team of writers. Why is it the wrong path you might ask?
Well it is the wrong path because all the hard work from gigging, touring and personal appearances will simply be lining other people’s pockets as this informative BBC4 documentary – Richest Songs in the World – showed. The beneficiary’s of this wealth? The Song writers and owners of the copyright to the song.
Fronted by BBC DJ Mark Radcliffe who also doubles as one half of the comedy rock group The Shirehorses, the show revealed the top ten highest grossing songs ever and it was a very interesting list.
We are given tidbits of where the money comes from 7-8p a CD, 4p for a downloaded tune and usage of music on the BBC for instance can attract about £16 a minute. Then there are films, adverts, Karaoke machines, shopping centres and more.
So who is in the list?
10. Mel Torme – Christmas Song. (1944) [Listen]
The tenth spot was held by the Christmas Song written by Mel Torme and it was made famous by the great Nat King Cole. The song introduced two theme’s that ran throughout the list.
First was that a Christmas hit doesn’t just sell well, it sells spectacularly well! The other was that for incongruous reasons song writers of Jewish origin were masters at producing Christmas hits.
Estimated Earnings – £12.5 million.
9. Roy Orbison & Bill Dees – Oh Pretty Woman. (1964) [Listen]
Roy Orbison and Bill Dees were apparently struggling for song writing ideas when Roy’s wife walks in on them and announced she was going shopping and thus the opening lines “Pretty Woman walking down the street” were born. The rest of the song followed, and so did a no 1 hit in the USA and UK and elsewhere.
The Richard Gere / Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman brought a substantial boost to the song’s earning potential, as well as introducing it to a whole new generation, so much so that in late 1998 Bill Dees was reportedly earning $100,000 a year.
In the USA the song was the subject of a legal case that established the doctrine of parody. When rap artist Luke Campbell and his 2 Live Crew sampled the song into a somewhat salacious version the copyright owners objected.
The US supreme court ruled the version was a parody and exempt from royalty payments establishing a legal precedent that exists in the US till today. It may have made a small dent in revenues but not enough to stop the song from being a money spinner.
Estimated Earnings – £13 million
8. Sting – Every Breath You Take. (1983) [Listen]
This is the UK’s first entry in the list. It’s the 80′s super group, The Police, greatest ever song contributing a quarter of the revenue that their entire catalogue ever made. This song throws up another theme that crops in discussions about song revenue, who actually owns the rights. This song is credited to Sting (Gordon Sumner) but in the interview for this programme Andy Summers recounted how he had provided the guitar riff for the song.
So successful was the song that it grosses about $2000 a day. A lot of that is due to P Diddy’s incredibly successful sample of the song in memory of the late rapper Notorious BIG. Ironically the main part that was sampled was Summer’s iconic guitar riff.
Estimated Earnings – £13.5 million
7. Haven Gillespie & Fred J Coots – Santa Claus is coming to town. (1934) [Listen]
So popular has this song been that is covered pretty much anyone who’s anyone from the soulful rendition by the Jackson 5 to hard rocking version by Alice Cooper, and there is even a version by Justin Bieber.
Estimated Earnings – £16.5 million
6. Ben E King, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller – Stand By Me. (1961) [Listen]
I personally have believed the best music comes out of time of uncertainty. In particular the sixties and early seventies a period of profound political and social change brought us some of the best music that has ever been produced. Ben E King’s anthemic song is a worthy representative of this era.
Ben brought the song initially to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who were working out of the famous Brill Building in New York. They added to it’s composition and also agreed to a royalty split of 25% to Leiber and Stoller and 50% to Ben E King, an unusually amicable agreement in an industry where back stabbing over royalties is a way of life.
Stand By me was successful in its own right but the River Phoenix film of the same name amongst other reuses of the song have seen its commercial success soar
Estimated Earnings – £17.5 million
5. Alex North & Hy Zaret – Unchained Melody. (1955) [Listen]
Written for a prison movie ‘Unchained’ in the 50′s it was originally about about a prisoner yearning for freedom. The song was made famous by two guys with most perfectly sculptured chins in show business The righteous Brothers and in the UK by two less sculptured British blokes Robson and Jerome. In between the song has been covered at least an amazing 650 times.
Estimated Earnings – £18 million
4. John Lennon and Paul McCartney – Yesterday. (1965) [Listen]
Back to Blighty for number 4. Yesterday was said to have been specifically written by Paul McCarthy but given the arrangements that existed within the Beatles it is credited to Lennon and McCartney.
When the song was originally written the final lyrics had not been worked out so Paul McCartney used in its place were an homage to scrambled eggs until he came with the now famous lyrics. Despite it seeming simplicity the song is the most successful of the Beatles’s compositions.
Estimated Earnings – £19.5 million
3.Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Specter – You lost that loving feeling. (1964) [Listen]
Written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil a legendary Husband and Wife song writing team working out of the famous Brill Building music factory. They worked with Phil Specter on this song and when interviewed on the programme stated he famously added the line “and he is gone, gone, gone, Whoa, whoa, whoa”, much to Mann and Weil’s skepticism . The addition along with Phil Spectre’s wall of sound production worked and helped make the song the most played on radio ever.
Memorably in the UK the song release pitted a very young Cilla Black against the great chins from America – The Righteous brothers in a battle for No 1 both with the same song. Cilla eventually lost out to the tighter more sophisticated production on the American version. Must have been a ‘surprise, surprise’ for her. [Sorry!]
Estimated Earnings – £20.5 million
2.Irving Berlin – White Christmas. (1940) [Listen]
“I am dreaming of a white Christmas”. This song bundles up all your nostalgic memories of Christmas into soft heavily sentimental wrapping, the ultimate Christmas Song. It was Irving Berlin’s masterpiece and in the hands of all American crooner Bing Crosby it sold an amazing sold 40 million copies and has since gone one to sell over 100 million units netting the man who started as a poor jewish immigrant from Russia a fortune.
Interesting Irving Berlin was a leading light in the creation of The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) the body that first adopted a unified approach for the collection of song royalties and arguably laid the foundation for the fortune of many others on the list.
Estimated Earnings – £24 million
So what’s number one? I heard about this before but was never sure if it was an urban myth or not, well it’s been confirmed.
1.Hill Sisters – Happy Birthday. (1893) [Listen]
No not the Stevie Wonder one. The one you sing at home when it is a birthday, yes that one. You might think of it a ditty, a rhyme, a kids song, but if it is musical and can been copyrighted it will generate royalties. When you consider that every one of the 6 billion people on earth has a birthday you can begin to see the earning potential.
Kindergarten teachers Patty and Mildred Hill created it as a song for their kids with the words originally ‘Good Morning to You’ along the way it morphed to Happy Birthday and into an incredibly popular song. So much so that Warner Brothers bought the rights to the song for 25 million dollars. Happy Birthday reportedly costs 25,000 dollars for use in a TV or Movie and despite its age remains under copyright in the USA till 2030. In the EU the copyright ends in 2016.
Estimated Earnings – £30 million
All in all a great programme and given all the music clips of theses songs and their various cover versions it definitely added a few more pennies to the earnings.
- The Richest Songs in the World, BBC Four [IPlayer] (bbc.co.uk)
- The Richest Songs in the World, BBC Four, review (telegraph.co.uk)