How 10 Major Songwriters Make Big Money - Rolling Stone
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How 10 Major Songwriters Make Big Money

Calculating song royalties is a tricky business, but it’s clear that these rights holders are raking it in

Katy Perry, Cee-Lo Green, Rihanna

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The-Dream, the R&B singer and behind-the-scenes power player, recently boasted of a $15 million payday for writing Rihanna's 2007 smash "Umbrella." True? "When you have a cross-over song, it just makes more and more and more money," says Tom DeSavia, a vice president at Notable Music, a 50-year-old music publisher founded by the late songwriter Cy Coleman. "They just make shitloads of money from every source."

But our guess is The-Dream is exaggerating. Every time a track or record sells, all the songwriters receive a total of 9.1 cents in mechanical-royalty payments. (This can cause all kinds of crazy examples of "mailbox money." Famously, Curtis Stigers covered "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" on Whitney Houston's 1992 The Bodyguard soundtrack. It has gone on to sell 17 million copies in the U.S., which means the songwriter, former British pub-rocker Nick Lowe, has received checks for roughly $1.547 million in his mailbox.) "Umbrella" has sold 4 million tracks and was included on 2.72 million sales of the Good Girl Gone Bad album, meaning all four songwriters (including rapper Jay-Z) shared $611,520, not counting worldwide sales.

Of course, there are a lot more ways for a songwriter to make money. If the song appears in a movie, TV show, videogame or commercial, the publisher or record label makes a deal and the writer gets a certain (usually large) amount in licensing royalties. And a massive hit like "Rolling in the Deep" or "Poker Face" can make as much as $500,000 per year just in radio royalties. Plus, songs create royalties when they're performed in concert – by anybody – as well as at awards shows or sports events. They also draw (small but growing) royalties from streaming online – Spotify, YouTube, Rhapsody and others. "Over a lifetime? Millions, if the song becomes a standard and hangs around for 20 or 30 years," says Seth Saltzman, a senior vice president for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which makes sure its 400,000 members receive the royalties they're due. "Lots of different income streams that could happen."

Here's a run-down of how much 10 songwriters have made off recent blockbuster hits. The figures refer to mechanical royalties based on U.S. track and album sales as of January 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Each movie and TV deal is different, so we have no idea how much extra money these songs made from licensing. Also, we can't say how the money is divided up among each songwriter and his or her publishing company – in a typical deal, a major publisher will take half of an inexperienced writer's total royalties, sources say.

By Steve Knopper


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Dan Wilson, Co-Writer, Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’

TRACK SALES: 3.9 million
ALBUM SALES: 5.8 million

"When I heard that song, I knew that was the best song she'd ever written," Adele's manager, Jonathan Dickins, recently told Rolling Stone. "But I don't think I was thinking we were going to sell 14.5 million albums [worldwide] in 10 months." Adele had help from Dan Wilson, who wrote "Closing Time," the 1998 alt-rock smash by his band Semisonic. Wilson continues to make albums, but he's freakin' rich for writing on Josh Groban's Illuminations, Keith Urban's Get Closer, Weezer's Hurley and others.

Lady Gaga

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Lady Gaga, Co-Writer, ‘Poker Face’

TRACK SALES: 6.5 million
ALBUM SALES: 1.5 million

Stefani Germanotta didn't truly become Lady Gaga until she collaborated with Moroccan-born producer RedOne, trained in the songwriting arts as a young man in Sweden. They first worked together on "Just Dance," then on one of Gaga's signature hits, "Poker Face." Eventually the songwriting money became so big for Gaga hits that collaborator Rob Fusari sued her for $30.5 million in 2010, saying he should have received 20 percent in royalties for songs on The Fame. Gaga counter-sued, and the case was settled out of court.


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The-Dream, Co-Author, Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’

TRACK SALES: 4 million
ALBUM SALES: 2.72 million

"Umbrella," one of the most recognizable pop hits of the last decade, has been covered around the world, featured on Glee, included in video games, and dominated awards shows and radio playlists. The $611,520 is a low estimate for total income, given all these extra revenues. But all the royalties must be split among Jay-Z, The-Dream, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart (known for his work with Britney, Beyoncé and others) and Kuk Harrell (the vocal producer who today works on American Idol).

Foster The People

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Mark Foster, writer, Foster the People’s ‘Pumped Up Kicks’

TRACK SALES: 3.8 million
ALBUM SALES: 671,000

In terms of pure mechanical royalties, "Pumped Up Kicks" is among the lowest-earning songs on our list –but Foster the People frontman Foster may well out-gross all the others. First, he doesn't have to share his income with any other writers. Second, "Kicks" has been Hollywood's go-to background track for more than a year. It has appeared in TV's Entourage, Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries and the movies Friends With Benefits and Fright Night. That's a lot of licensing money.

Katy Perry

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Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Bonnie McKee, Co-Writers, Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’

TRACK SALES: 5.1 million
ALBUM SALES: 2 million

The all-star songwriting-and-production team behind Perry's "California Gurls," "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" and "Teenage Dream," and Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me" is the gold standard for pop megahits these days. Martin (the Swedish producer who wrote what seemed like every teen-pop hit in the late '90s and early 2000s) and Dr. Luke (the former "Saturday Night Live" guitarist who is pretty much everywhere these days) joined struggling singer-songwriter McKee in 2010 and turned her into the missing link. On this track, the trio has to share royalties with Perry and guest rapper Snoop Dogg.

Cee-Lo Green

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Cee Lo Green, Co-Writer, ‘Fuck You!’

TRACK SALES: 5.4 million
ALBUM SALES: 458,000

One of five songwriters for his instant viral smash, Cee Lo has taken both versions of 2010's "Fuck You!" just about everywhere, from the Grammy Awards to The Muppets. His record label, Elektra, is probably not super-excited about the lopsided track-to-album numbers, as it makes far more profit off albums than tracks. But the songwriters get a uniform rate – 9.1 cents – whether it sells via iTunes or on The Lady Killer CD.

Taylor Swift

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Taylor Swift, Writer, ‘Speak Now’

TRACK SALES: 485,000
ALBUM SALES: 3.9 million

Sort of the reverse Cee Lo, Swift and her record label, Big Machine, have worked hard to establish her as an album artist. As with Mark Foster for "Pumped Up Kicks," Swift shares no songwriting credit for this song. But unlike Foster the People, she's far from a one-hit wonder, as numerous songs from 2010's Speak Now album have become big country-radio hits, and Swift takes at least a share of the 9.1 cents for each of them.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for MASSIVEGOOD STUDIO, Co-Writer, ‘Boom Boom Pow’

TRACK SALES: 6.3 million
ALBUM SALES: 3.15 million

Remixed numerous times, licensed for movies (in the end credits to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), featured on American Idol (in the 2009 finale) and performed at the Super Bowl, 2009's "Boom Boom Pow" is perhaps the biggest-earning song on this list. Of course, the Peas have to split the royalties and licensing fees four ways.

Adam Levine

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Benny Blanco, co-writer, ‘Moves Like Jagger’

TRACK SALES: 4.1 million
ALBUM SALES: 928,000

A hot producer who frequently collaborates with Dr. Luke, Blanco often writes portions of the songs he works on, from Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" to Ke$ha's "Sleazy." Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine and Max Martin colleague Shellback share credit, too, but the sleeper writer on this 2011 smash is Ammar Malik, a Pakistani-American who worked with Levine on Gym Class Heroes' "Stereo Hearts" and kept in touch. As far as we can tell, the song's namesake and inspiration receives no royalties whatsoever.


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Eminem, Co-Writer, ‘Love the Way You Lie’

TRACK SALES: 5.3 million
ALBUM SALES: 4.2 million

Eminem finished "Love the Way You Lie" with his own rapping, of course, but the story behind the hook has a certain star-making drama. Holly Brook, a struggling singer-songwriter on various record labels for years, met British hip-hop producer Alex da Kid. He had produced B.o.B.'s "Airplanes," she heard it via her music publisher, she contacted Alex, he sent her a beat and she added a new hook. That hook turned into the backbone of "Love the Way You Lie." Eminem liked the hook, Rihanna sang it, Brook changed her name to Skyler Grey and the rest is mailbox-money history.

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