Being successful in the music business takes more than just a great voice. If you want to rake in the big bucks you have to have (or write) the ultimate song. It’s almost vital to survival that artists learn how to write their own songs, but not just any song, a hit song.
Artists have actually been able to retire early and live lavish lifestyles off of the royalties from their few popular songs. The music business is like any other business; you produce a product and hope that there is a high demand for it. Songwriters are entitled to a portion or percentage of each product that they create.
Whenever a record sells, the songwriter receives 9.1 cents in mechanical-royalty payments. There are also residual royalties from other markets. There are also more ways that songwriters rake in the cash from their writing skills. If the songwriter’s song appears in a movie, TV show, video game or commercial, the artist’s record label will make a deal and the songwriter will get a large amount of the licensing royalties. While some songs are short lived, others go on for years and rake in millions. Here is a look at the 12 highest earning songs of all times.
12. I Will Always Love You by Dolly Parton (1973)
I Will Always Love You was written and recorded by Dolly Parton, in 1973. Dolly wrote the song for her partner at the time, Porter Wagoner. The song had good commercial success and it reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart two times in 1974 and again in 1982. The song helped Dolly win Female Vocalist of the Year in 1975 at the CMA Awards.
In 1992, it topped the charts again when Whitney Houston covered it for her 1992 movie, The Bodyguard. Houston’s version quickly became one of the best-selling singles of all time. It was only the second single to reach top 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 on three separate chart runs. The song has earned Dolly millions.
11. Candle In The Wind by Elton John and Bernie Taupin (1973)
Candle in the Wind was written in 1973 by the pairing of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The song was originally written about the death of Marilyn Monroe. In 1997 Elton did a rewrite on the song as a memorial for his close friend Princess Diana. The new version of the song was released as a single. It reached number one on music charts across the globe. The rewritten version had greater success than the original version.
The rewritten version was also known by the title Goodbye England’s Rose. The song won Elton John a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance in 1988. The song is listed as the second best-selling single of all time. The exact amount of money the song has made for John isn’t known, but there is no doubt John could retire on the royalties alone.
10. The Christmas Song by Mel Torme (1944)
Who doesn’t know this song? Who hasn’t sung “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”? Bob Wells and Mel Torme, who were known at the time as The Velvet Fog, composed the song in 1944 as an effort to get relief from the overwhelming California heat. The song is surrounded with irony because Mel Torme, who finished up the lyrics to the song, was Jewish and he wrapped up the song in 45 minutes on a hot and sunny California day.
The song was first performed by Nat King Cole in 1946, and it became an instant hit on both the R & B and pop charts. It is estimated that Wells and Torme earned $19 million from their song.
9. Oh Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees (1964)
One of the best ways to rake in big cash on your songwriting skills is for your song to be part of a movie’s soundtrack, or better yet for it to be the feature song in a blockbuster Hollywood movie. That is what happened to this song and to add to the fame and fortune, the movie was named after the song.
Bill Dees did an interview in 2012, just before his death and stated that he was still earning $100-$200 thousand per year in royalties from Oh Pretty Woman, nearly 50 years after he penned it. The estimated value of the song is $19.75 million.
8. Every Breath You Take by Sting (1983)
Sting’s biggest hit, Every Breath You Take, was penned back in 1983. The song spent eight weeks at number one on the Billboard Top 100. The song received a reboot in 1997 after Puff Daddy released a cover tribute to the late Notorious BIG called I’ll Be Missing You. Puff Daddy’s version won a Grammy and went on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time, selling 7 million copies worldwide. Sting’s song was responsible for ¼ of the singer’s lifetime publishing income. Today the song still reportedly produces $2000 a day ($730,000 per year) in royalties for Sting.
7. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town by Haven Gillespie and Fred J. Coots (1954)
Three different Christmas songs have made this list. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town was penned by Haven Gillespie and Fred J. Coots. They penned the song together in 1954. The very day the song made its debut more than 100,000 copies of sheet music were ordered by people, within a few days over 400,000 copies were ordered.
The song has been covered by a wide range of artists from different music genres. The most notable singers to cover the 1954 song are Mariah Carey and Bruce Springsteen. So far, the holiday song has earned an estimated $27 million.
6. Stand By Me by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (1961)
Stand By Me was successful on its own, but it had a big time reboot when it was used in the Stephen King blockbuster movie Stand By Me. Twenty years after it was written it found itself at the top of the charts thanks to the 1986 hit movie.
Reportedly the song’s title was inspired by a spiritual composition that was written by Sam Cooke called Stand By My Father. The spiritual version of the song was sung by The Soul Stirrers. So far, there have been more than 400 recorded versions of Stand by Me performed by a variety of artists. The song has earned an estimated $27 million.
5. Unchained Melody by Alex North and Hy Zaret (1955)
Alex North and Hy Zaret originally wrote this song for a little known movie called Unchained, back in 1955. Despite the movie not being a success the song would go on to be one of the most covered songs in recorded history. The song has been covered by more than 650 artists. The 1965 version by the Righteous Brothers was the most famous covering of the hit song.
The song received a mega boost when it was used in the 1990 blockbuster movie Ghost, which starred Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. The film won an Oscar. The estimated earnings of the song are $27.5 million.
4. Yesterday by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (1965)
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the songwriters for the Beatles. From the start the duo made an agreement to share credit for the songs 50/50, no matter how much either of them contributed to the song. Because of the agreement, Lennon got credit for Yesterday even though McCartney was 100% responsible for the writing and singing of the song.
Yesterday would become the second most played song in the history of radio. It has been covered by more than 2200 different artists. Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s sole heir, has received millions in royalties from the song. The estimated earnings of the song are $30 million.
3. You’ve Lost That Feeling by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Spector (1964)
Barry Mann and his wife Cynthia Weil, teamed up with legendary producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector. It was Spector who suggested that they add the famous line “and he is gone, gone, gone, Whoa, whoa, whoa”. Mann and Weil did not want to add the line but caved to Specter’s wishes.
You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin became a massive hit after it was recorded by The Righteous Brothers. It also got a massive reboot in 1986 when it was included in the soundtrack for Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise. The song has been covered by over 2200 different artists and went on to become one of the most played songs in radio history. The song has earned an estimated $32 million.
2. White Christmas by Irving Berlin (1940)
There has never been a song that captures the heart of Christmas the way that White Christmas does. There is a bit of irony surrounding the song because writer, Irvin Berlin, was a Jewish immigrant from Russia.
Though the song has been covered by countless artists, the most famous version will always be Bing Crosby’s. Crosby’s version of White Christmas is one of the best-selling versions in music history. It sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. The song remains one of the most popular and played Christmas songs in the world. The song has brought in an estimated $36 million.
1. Happy Birthday by the Hill Sisters (1893)
The Hill sisters found themselves needing a song for their kindergarten class to sing on birthdays back in 1893. The sisters penned Happy Birthday and 120 years later, we are still singing it. The ownership of the song has changed hands a few times throughout the years. In 1990, Warner Chappell, a music holding company, bought the rights to the song for $15 million.
Today, Happy Birthday brings in a reported $5000 a day, $2 million a year in royalties. The cost of using the song in a movie or on TV is $25,000. It is actually against the law to sing Happy Birthday in a large group of unrelated people such as at an office party. The song has brought in an estimated $50 million.