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

Johnny Nunez/Mike Coppola/Joe Scarnici/FilmMagic

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

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

Sipa via AP Images/Steve Jennings/WireImage

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.


Michael Buckner/Kevin Mazur/EM/WireImage

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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