The publication that once self-described as “The Capitalist’s Tool,” which eventually had an unfortunate if apt meaning, Forbes, has, like its competitor, Fortune, long been into creating lists. This was something that preceded the clickbait approach of so-called listicles, which are pretty much predicated on short attention spans. In the case of Forbes and Fortune the lists were predicated on numeric data that their readers could use for purposes of comparison and analysis rather than distraction.
Still, times change for all.
One of the things that is tough to overlook about the music industry—and let’s recognize that what is most visible are the industry participants rather than artisans or craftspeople—is that it is hugely measured in the metric of “hits,” which means “sales,” which means “revenue,” which leads to “earnings.”
In the recent Q3 earnings call, for example, for Universal Music Group, during which it was noted that the company had its fifth quarter running of strong earnings (e.g., revenues of $2.68 billion), Sir Lucian Grainge (and know that Grainge wasn’t knighted because of dragons), pointed out that while there are some 100,000 tracks uploaded to streaming services each day, this is really not helpful because it tends to be “low-quality content,” as distinct from 114-million album seller Taylor Swift, about whom he remarked: “You just have to look at the excitement around the world on a brilliant album by a brilliant artist with this week’s Taylor Swift release. That drives consumption, it drives audience and it drives new people to everything to the products, to the platforms, to other music.” And, of course, it drives revenue.
But Swift is still with us, and Forbes has complied a list of the top-earning artists and entertainers who are dead but still minting some serious coin during the past 12 months.
Of the list of 15 people, musicians take eight spots. The first two on the list are J.R.R. Tolkien ($500 million) and Kobe Bryant ($400 million).
But then there is a musician at number three. David Bowie. He (or more accurately, some legally existing entity, but from here on out we’ll just cite names rather than estates, tontines, corporations, and what have you) earned $250-million. This primarily from a catalog sale.
(According to Will Page of Tarzan Economics, which runs numbers related to the music industry, the global value of music copyright is $39.6-billion, which is now 40% more than in 2001, the year of peak CD; now 55% of the value is predicated on streaming.)
At number 4 is a man who has been dead since August 16, 1977. Elvis earned $110-million during the past year. This is mainly a take from Graceland and various variations of Elvis-branded objects. One might image that at some point in the past—maybe 2001—we hit peak Elvis. Consider: 50,000,000 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong came out in 1959. If they were an average 20 years old then, this means they’re now 83. The only hip shaking most of them are going to do could lead to a fracture. Still, they’ve evidently got some disposable income.
James Brown, the former hardest working man in show business, is in the fifth position, $100-million. This is based on music rights, real estate (evidently hard working and smart), and his name and likeness. Two interesting things to know about him: he was short: 5-foot, 6 inches (according to the CDC, the average male is 5’9”) and he died on Christmas (2006).
Michael Jackson is in sixth position, with $75-million in earnings. Shows in Vegas and on Broadway and his catalog accounts for the major portion of this income. (Speaking of Vegas, while there seems to be an increasing trend toward musicians doing residencies there so they don’t need to travel, it is worth noting that Jackson’s ex-father-in-law performed there more than 600 times, including a run of 58 sold-out shows—that’s entertainment.)
Seventh place, at $55-million, is held by Canadian musician Leonard Cohen, whose “Hallelujah” seems to be a song people like to cover. According to the New York Times Cohen died the night of November 7, 2016, “during his sleep following a fall.” Cohen’s Wikipedia entry has it that “His work explored religion, politics, isolation, depression, sexuality, loss, death, and romantic relationships.” Probably not the life of any party not being held in the basement of a funeral home. Cohen’s earnings were from publishing and his masters.
The most-unexpected musician on the list is in ninth, with $25-million: Jeff Porcaro. Yes, the drummer for Toto. He died in 1992 at age 38 of a heart attack. While some may sneer at Porcaro and Toto, the opening paragraph of article that appeared in 1997 in Drum! magazine by Greg Rule is worth quoting in full because one can only assume that Drum! magazine probably has writers who know a little more about, well, drummers than the rest of us:
“For two-plus magical decades, Jeff Porcaro set the standard. Whatever the session, whatever the stage, when he picked up sticks it was pure magic. Smooth as silk. Deep beyond all comprehension. Taste, impeccable time and attitude for days. He had it all. From his breakthrough sessions with Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan in the mid ’70s to his final notes with Toto on Kingdom of Desire in 1992, the man with the golden groove was consistently brilliant. ‘He was one of the best drummers in the world,’ said Eddie Van Halen at a tribute held for Jeff in late ’92. ‘Definitely the groove master. He was just so heavy.’”
Porcaro’s earnings came from publishing and recording royalties. (Apparently Pocaro’s half-time shuffle beat on “Rosanna” is considered by many to be iconic. Speaking of that song, it was written about Rosanna Arquette, who had been dating Steve Porcaro, Toto keyboard player and yes, Jeff’s brother. Arquette is also the person about whom Peter Gabriel wrote “In Your Eyes.” She’s clearly something.)
Positions 12 and 13, $16-million and $12-million, respectively, deserve a shrug: John Lennon and George Harrison. Royalties and rights for the music in Get Back. One of these days George will get ahead of John. . . .
Bowie illustration by Michelle Rohn for Forbes.