In 2015, Most of The Highest Paid Musicians Are Men

November 12, 2015, 10:50 AM UTC
Katy Perry Performs At The Odyssey Arena, Belfast
BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: Katy Perry performs on stage on the opening night of her Prismatic World Tour at Odyssey Arena on May 7, 2014 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Christie Goodwin/Getty Images)
Photograph by Christie Goodwin — Getty Images

Last week, Adele’s newest single, “Hello,” debuted at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and set the record for the most US downloads sold in a single week, at 1.11 million. She takes her place alongside such other female pop sirens as Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, all of whom are earning more money than at any other time in their young careers.

“Right now, females are dominant in the top 40,” said Mara Schwartz Kuge, president of Superior Music Publishing in Los Angeles. “A lot of number one songs are by female artists.”

Just listening to top 40 radio certainly reinforces the impression that women under 30 are music’s biggest moneymakers right now. However, a deeper dive into the data shows that in fact it’s the men who are some of the industry’s biggest earners, and some of them are pushing 70 years of age.

Forbes’ 2015 list of the highest-paid women in music features the names you’d expect. Katy Perry took the top spot, thanks to her 126-show Prismatic World Tour and her deals with such companies as Covergirl, which brought her $135 million in earnings over the past year. The publication’s list of highest-paid celebrities in the “music” category, on the other hand, shows something entirely different. Katy Perry tops that one too, followed by the boy band One Direction, and then… Garth Brooks. Yes, that Garth Brooks. Here’s the full list.

  1. Katy Perry
  2. One Direction
  3. Garth Brooks
  4. Taylor Swift
  5. The Eagles
  6. Calvin Harris
  7. Justin Timberlake
  8. Sean Combs
  9. Fleetwood Mac
  10. Lady Gaga

This list is much more testosterone-heavy than an afternoon spent listening to top 40 radio would suggest. It consists of three young ladies, six older male artists and Fleetwood Mac, the only act to mix things up, gender-wise. If you look at the top 20, it is even more heavily male, with nine men and only one woman — Beyonce–making an appearance in the 11-20 list.

Here are four reasons why the men dominate the list of highest-earning musical acts.

1. If you want to make money in music, you have to tour

In the Spotify age, record sales have plummeted. The money today is in touring, which most of music’s top earners seem to have figured out.

Along with Katy Perry, One Direction reached the upper echelon of musical earning thanks to its “Where We Are” stadium tour, which earned $290 million in ticket sales. Taylor Swift’s “1989 World Tour” has made $86 million so far, according to Billboard, which also said that Lady Gaga earned $83 million on her “ArtRave: The Artpop Ball” tour.

Such artists as The Eagles, Garth Brooks and Fleetwood Mac all made their names when record sales were a musician’s primary revenue stream. Today they’re known as “legacy acts,” or artists with long histories and appeal to more than one generation of fans, and despite lacking the glamor of their younger counterparts, they do blockbuster business on tour.

“The Eagles did a huge, very successful tour,” said Mike Knobloch, president of Film Music and Publishing at Universal Pictures. “They’re a legacy act, and legacy acts can fill a stadium in every city they go to.”

Mara Schwartz Kuge agreed, and added that many of these artists are among the few still making money off of record sales.

“They’re selling records, not in the quantities that they did back in day, but their fans aren’t downloading music as much as fans of younger artists,” she said. “Their fans still buy records.”

Record sales certainly don’t hurt, but they’re clearly no longer what makes an artist one of music’s highest earners. Garth Brooks came out of retirement last year and his first album in 13 years, “Man Against Machine,” has yet to achieve platinum status. Fleetwood Mac have no new album at all, their last being 2003’s “Say You Will.” Without ticket sales, the money simply wouldn’t be there in the amounts that it is.

“When they tour, the tickets go for hundreds of dollars,” Kuge said of these artists. “They also do VIP packages, meet-and-greets… people who are older and don’t go to a lot of shows are willing to spend a lot of money to see them. Fleetwood Mac or The Eagles can play a stadium in any city in the world and fill it.”

Joel Diamond, president and CEO of Silver Blue Productions and Joel Diamond Entertainment, is a two-time Grammy nominee who headed up Sony Music Publishing under the tutelage of the legendary Clive Davis. He said that the older artists draw crowds not just because of the music, but because the marketplace is kinder to men who have gotten on in years than it is to women in the same position, Fleetwood Mac notwithstanding.

“Artists like Garth and the Eagles are akin to the men in the beer or truck commercial,” he said. “They still retain their sex appeal and play to their demographic audience, who are willing to pay the big bucks.”

2. Electronic dance music is having a moment

You may not have heard of Scottish DJ, singer, songwriter and record producer Calvin Harris, but enough people have not only heard of him, but also showered him with enough revenues, to make him one of music’s top earners. So just because you’re not a US stadium act, it doesn’t mean nobody’s heard of you.

Harris has been around since 2007, and has enjoyed numerous hit albums and singles in the UK. His 2012 release, “18 Months,” broke into the US Billboard charts, and he appeared on the 2011 Rihanna song “We Found Love,” on which he also served as writer and producer. He remains a much bigger star overseas than he is in the US, but the $66 million he earned last year proves that it clearly doesn’t matter.

“Calvin Harris has been involved in some major hit songs as producer and feature performer, and he makes a lot of money,” Kuge said. “He’s an EDM [electronic dance music] artist and they’re huge touring business. EDM is having a huge, huge, huge moment.”

3. Diversification

Justin Timberlake and Sean Combs round out the list of music’s top earners. Upon closer inspection, that seems odd, since Timberlake last released a studio album, “The 20/20 Experience,” in 2013, and Combs’ last proper studio album, “Last Train to Paris,” is now five years old. His current offering, “MMM,” was just released, and is completely free of charge to one and all.

Mike Knobloch said that to earn money with staying power, it’s not uncommon for a musician to branch out into many different efforts outside of the recording studio, which is exactly what both of these artists have done.

“There are different facets of what [Justin Timberlake] is getting paid to do,” he said. “There are movie roles, publicity income. If you have, domestically and abroad, publicity money and licensing money, film and TV and advertising, there are different columns of revenue that would factor in. A more active artist like him is ticking more of those boxes.”

Timberlake’s entrepreneurial efforts include the William Rast clothing line, which he co-founded, the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team, in which he is a limited partner, and the endorsement of products by Sony, Givenchy and Audi. For his part, Combs is making money outside of the music industry as the CEO of the clothing line Sean John, whose annual retail sales in the US are $525 million.

4. Merchandising

While music’s top earners mostly make their money touring, it’s by no means a surefire path to prosperity. Plenty of artists lose money on the road, but in the era of illegal downloading, there’s little choice but to tour.

Touring also offers a chance for revenue beyond just the cost of a ticket. It offers the opportunity to make more money through such merchandise as t-shirts and other collectables.

“One Dimension merchandise sales are through the roof,” Mara Schwartz Kuge said. “Their fans are fanatical.” She added that it’s not just the shrieking tweens who want something to take home from the concert, either.

“I wouldn’t rule out Fleetwood Mac, Garth Brooks, The Eagles,” she said. “Merchandise is a big part of being a fan.”

Except for those who have found revenue streams outside of music, the takeaway seems to be that the only way to make money as a recording artist is not even to record – it’s to tour. And if you’ve tried buying concert tickets for your favorite act lately, it’s easy to see why.

“The price for Madonna’s last tour was $400 a ticket, and good seats in a stadium for a popular act can be about $250,” Knobloch said. “Those shows aren’t cheap. Even the cheap ones aren’t cheap.”

Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.