“It’s money that matters,” Randy Newman once famously sang. Thing is, Newman was being sarcastic.
Sarcasm is apparently lost on Billboard, the music industry’s version of the Wall Street Journal. Billboard has just published its “Music’s Top 40 Money Makers 2014: The Rich List,” in which financial success is treated as the only true success and capturing revenue from every angle is considered a recording artist’s most noble aim.
Hence, the graphic accompanying the Billboard piece, which depicts a $100 bill with pop-country star Taylor Swift’s face in the spot normally reserved for Benjamin Franklin. Swift took the top slot on the list, raking in nearly $40 million in 2013.
Earning lots of money is in itself not a bad thing, though considering the ever-widening chasm between haves and have-nots, some might argue otherwise. If the market supports a recording/performing artist in such a manner that they become richer than the proverbial God, then so be it, right? That’s how free market capitalism is supposed to work. However, by following the money, we discover some rather abundant cultural rot and are presented with a picture of pop music that has all of the less-than-beautiful bits airbrushed away.
The Billboard list factors in everything but the “ancillary product gross,” which denotes merchandise sales, “branding” and product sponsorships. Swift, for example, made most of her money from touring, where she gathered $30 million net ($110 million gross) in the U.S. alone last year, with an average ticket price of $84.40 per seat.
Swift’s album sales – physical CDs, primarily – ranked eighth among the Billboard elite, and she ranked sixth in the digital download area and fifth in royalties paid from streaming sites. On top of all this, Billboard estimated an additional $10 million in ancillary income for Swift, plus sponsorship deals with “an estimated cash value believed to be in the high seven figures.”
Consider, for a moment, Swift’s music. Whether one loves it or hates it, one would be hard-pressed to concoct a rational argument for its musical excellence. In hockey terms, Swift is a fourth-line winger earning Sydney Crosby bucks.
Lest you get the impression that I’m interested only in tearing down mainstream pop icons, let’s turn our attention to some of the old fogey rockers on the list. The Rolling Stones also made the list, with a take of $26 million for 2013. This would not be particularly remarkable, save for the fact that the Stones played only 18 shows last year, as compared with Swift’s 66.
The Stones toured to celebrate their 50th anniversary. I saw the show in Toronto. It was pretty great, considering. I say “considering,” because even though I love the Rolling Stones it is impossible to interpret what they are doing at this point without the aid of the “They’re still great considering that they’re old men!” filter. The Stones were great, but they gouged their fans, clearly. The average ticket price was in the area of $335, and secondary ticket dealers were getting well in excess of $1,000 per seat. It would be nice to write “No one was complaining, though” in this spot. Nice, but not true. People were complaining.
Who else made the top of the Billboard money heap? No real surprises. Kenny Chesney, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Maroon 5, Luke Bryan, Pink and Fleetwood Mac.
Further down the list, things are a bit more surprising, though. Here, we see that prog rock and “hippie” bands still bring in the bread - though considerably less of it, and they have to tour for much longer to earn it. Phish, for example, pulled in nearly $12.5 million in 2013 while charging an average ticket price of $70. Rush earned $9 million for the same period, by playing a ton of dates around the world and charging fans the same money Phish was charging, on average.
I saw both bands last year. I didn’t feel ripped off.
Is there any musician who deserves to make $40 million for 66 90-minute concerts? If there is, that person doesn’t live in Buffalo. Around here, the average income per gig for the working musician averages around $70 for three hours.
Summer’s coming, and we are about to get slammed with concert choices. Let’s agree to spend our concert money wisely. We don’t want anyone to get the idea that we enjoy getting ripped off.