Of all the so-called “pandemic-proof” jobs, here’s a surprising one: rock star. The 10 highest paid musicians in the world in 2021 raked in a total of $2.3 billion, more than double what they earned on an annual basis in the years just before Covid-19.
The coronavirus has decimated touring, with brutal effects for artists who rely on concerts as their main source of income. But in the stratosphere, icons from Bruce Springsteen to Paul Simon have found other ways to make money, including offloading their catalogs for nine-figure sums.
“They’re almost like works of art — there’s a finite number of real, really high-quality hit songs from the past — and there’s this kind of total grip to hold those rights,” says Josh Gruss, Founder and CEO of Round Hill Music, which has spent $1.3 billion on music copyrights over the past decade. “It’s a very steady stream of income that’s there, and that makes it very attractive for investment.”
Only Jay-Z, Kanye West and Taylor Swift made the cut without a massive catalog sale (scroll down to see the full rankings). The other seven of the top 10 earners in music earned most of their dollars selling royalties. Underscoring the industry’s persistent pay gap, they’re all white men (Stevie Nicks sold her catalog for $100 million in December 2020, narrowly missing our threshold). You must extend to top 15 to find the second highest-paid woman in music or an act born outside the United States.
This sad reality has roots as old as the music industry itself, especially when it comes to gender disparity. For every Springsteen signed to a recording contract, how many rockers have been passed over? For every Dylan who has had the freedom to write his songs – and accumulate intellectual property – how many women have been pigeonholed as mere singers? For every Simon who upheld or negotiated the return of her rights decades ago, how many female icons have been denied that respect? And the same goes for so many underrepresented demographics in the industry.
There are at least a few younger names among all the centimillionaires in their 70s. Some of the biggest catalog sales, like Ryan Tedder’s $200 million deal, have been reported before. Others, including Blake Shelton’s over $50 million rights sale, did not. Either way, it’s clear that investors are finally seeing the value of music in the age of streaming, for better or worse.
“There’s a great irony in the fact that while Wall Street takes notice of the value of songs, digital platforms often don’t,” says Jody Gerson, president and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group. “Which means we have to keep fighting for our songwriters both in terms of the value of what they create and in terms of treating songs as art, not as assets.”
So for the 1% of music, what’s the incentive to sell? There are a range of factors, some obscure and overlooked, such as tax rates: the sale of a catalog is generally treated as a capital gain, and therefore taxed at a much lower rate than a royalty check .
Then there’s the fact that music consumption continues to soar, with global on-demand rotations up 26.3% year-over-year. This figure was strongly boosted by catalog streaming, which soared 19.3% this year and accounted for 69.8% of overall viewing.
On top of that, low interest rates around the world mean megabuyers like private equity firm KKR and Merck Mercuriadis’ fund Hipgnosis Songs can afford to borrow cheaply, prompting them to pay higher multiples and write larger checks.
But many insiders believe those terms are likely to change in the not-too-distant future. Some expect to see changes to the tax code, while others worry that rising inflation will lead to higher interest rates.
“It must lead to some sort of adjustment in paid multiples,” says Gruss, who thinks the music rights market is approaching its peak, at least at the high end. “But I’ve been wrong before – every year when I think it’s maxed out, it just keeps going.”
Read on to see the full ranking of the highest-earning musicians in the world. The list measures pre-tax income for the 2021 calendar year before deducting fees for agents, managers, attorneys, living expenses, etc. Estimates are generated by going through public records and interviewing people with direct knowledge of major transactions.
After a decade of ForbesZack O’Malley Greenburg covers the music industry at Substack – find his work, including top earners #11-15, here. He is the author of four music books, including the biography of Jay-Z Empire mindset. His stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Vanity Fair.
Photo illustrations by Sean McCabe for Rolling Stone. Photographs illustrated by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP (Swift); Jason Kempin/ACMA2021/Getty Images (Shelton); Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP (Motley Crue); Lauren Dukoff (Buckingham); Gus Van Zant (Hot Red Chili); Hubert Boesl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP (Tedder); David Livingston/Getty Images (West); Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images (Simon); Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/Sipa USA/AP (Jay-Z); Danny Clinch (Springsteen)