Even if they're not the ones on stage belting out their tunes, songwriters can make quite bit of cash from publishing royalties. If you write a hit song, you'll pick up anywhere from a few cents to hundreds of dollars any time it's played on TV, the radio, or in a film. Let's take a look at a few noteworthy tales of music royalties.
Jeopardy! Theme Makes a Non-Trivial Amount
Jeopardy!'s memorable theme song "Think!" was originally composed by show creator Merv Griffin as a lullaby for his son Tony; in 2005 Griffin told the New York Times that he had tossed the tune together in less than a minute. It might have been the most lucrative minute on record, though. In the same interview, Griffin estimated that the royalties from the theme had put somewhere between $70 and $80 million in his pockets.
To put that figure in perspective, to make that much loot by playing Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings would have needed to win every game for about 10 years.
"Happy Royalties to You"
You probably already knew that "Happy Birthday to You" is still under copyright and that licensing the song for use in, say, a film is prohibitively pricey. (Some sources estimate that the cost of using the tune in a movie is over $10,000.) Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. owns the copyright to the song, which allegedly earns in over $2 million in royalties each year.
Here's something you might not know, though: it's not entirely clear that the song's copyright is valid. In 2008 George Washington University law professor Robert Brauneis published a paper called "Copyright and the World's Most Popular Song" that contended the copyright might not stand up to any legal challenges. According to Brauneis, the copyright was surely expired due to failure to file proper renewals and ambiguity over who wrote the original lyrics. Nevertheless, Warner/Chappell keeps collecting royalties on the tune.
Elton John Can Afford Lots of Candles
It's hard to pin down which song has earned the most royalties over the years since so many of the copyrights are in private hands. "White Christmas" would seem like a safe choice, but Irving Berlin's family has been pretty cagey about revealing any figures. The English press has their own guess, though: Elton John's "Candle in the Wind."
If you've got to go out on a limb, "Candle in the Wind" is a pretty good bet. The song, which was originally written for the 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by John and lyricist Bernie Taupin, reached #11 on the UK charts when it was released as a single in 1974. In 1986 John released an even more successful live single of the song that featured accompaniment from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; that version reached #5 on the UK charts and peaked at #6 in the U.S.
The real sales, though, came when Taupin and John revised the song following the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Taupin changed the lyrics from a tribute to Marilyn Monroe to a tribute to Princess Di, and John rerecorded the track as "Candle in the Wind 1997." The single shot to the top of the charts around the world, and John pledged all of the song's royalties to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. By the end of the year, the song had earned $33 million for the foundation, and the Guinness Book of Records later certified it as the best-selling single "since records began."
The Video Beatles Rake It In
Just how valuable are the rights to the Beatles' catalog? Consider this: when Viacom licensed the Fab Four's tunes for the video game Beatles Rock Band last year, it coughed up $10 million just in initial fees. Wired estimated that if the game sold as planned, the royalties for the Beatles' rights holders would be over $40 million.
"Baker Street" Leads to Easy Street
It's not just mega-hits like the Beatles' catalog that pile up big royalties. According to a 2006 report, Scottish singer songwriter Gerry Rafferty pulls in over $100,000 a year in royalties from his 1978 single "Baker Street." Not too shabby for a song that never hit #1 in the U.S. or the U.K.
"A Whiter Shade of Pay Me My Royalties"
British band Procol Harum scored a number-one hit with its 1967 track "A Whiter Shade of Pale," and after spending six weeks atop the charts, the song has enjoyed a long life on oldies stations. Most listeners would agree that the organ part is the lynchpin of the song, but organist Matthew Fisher didn't get a sniff of the royalties. Instead, the cash went into the pockets of frontman Gary Brooker, who sang and played piano on the song, and manager/lyricist Keith Reid.
In 2005, Fisher decided he was due for some compensation and sued Brooker with the claim that he had co-written the song and deserved half of any royalties it had earned. In late 2006, the court decided that Brooker could have 40% of the copyright and a corresponding share of any royalties going forward. After several years of appeals by Brooker and Fisher, the case ended up before the House of Lords in 2009. The U.K.'s highest court ruled that Fisher's organ line had been a crucial part of the song's success and gave Fisher a share of any future royalties the song earned.