ETI’s list of Songs that have made the most money in music history

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Use any of these songs for any commercial purpose, and you are supposed to pay up, says George Washington University School of Law professor Robert Brauneis.

“If you want to sing any of these songs at your home at a birthday party you don’t have to pay anything, because that is a private performance,” he said. “But if you want to use it in a television show, a movie, or a television commercial, you’ll pay anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000 for those rights.”

Here is ETI’s list of the most profitable songs in music history.

10. Mel Torme – “Christmas Song” (1944). Estimated earnings: $19 million

This song, which you may know better as “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, has been covered by hundreds of artists including Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. Interestingly Torme was Jewish and wrote the song when he was just 19 years old. Mel’s son James Torme is jazz singer who may be the real life embodiment of Hugh Grant in “About A Boy”.

9. Roy Orbison & Bill Dees – “Oh Pretty Woman” (1964). Estimated earnings: $19.75 million

8. Sting – “Every Breath You Take” (1983). Estimated earnings: $20.5 million

This one song was responsible for 1/4 of all the money The Police’s entire catalogue has ever earned. Sting himself earns a reported $2000 EVERY DAY ($730,000 per year) thanks to the song which received a huge boost in popularity thanks to P Diddy’s remix tribute to Notorious BIG.

7. Haven Gillespie & Fred J Coots – “Santa Claus is coming to town” (1934). Estimated earnings: $25 million

6. Ben E King, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller – “Stand By Me” (1961). Estimated earnings: $27 million

The song was a huge hit in its own time but the movie of the same name really took “Stand By Me” to the earnings stratosphere.

5. Alex North & Hy Zaret – “Unchained Melody” (1955). Estimated earnings: $27.5 million

This song has been covered by more than 650 different artists, most notably The Righteous Brothers in 1965. The song was given another massive boost in 1990 when it was featured in the blockbuster film “Ghost”.

4. John Lennon and Paul McCartney – “Yesterday” (1965). Estimated earnings: $30 million

Even though Paul McCartney wrote and sang 100% of this song on his own, he had a longstanding agreement with fellow Beatle John Lennon to split all writing credits 50/50. That means Yoko Ono still earns millions today off a song that has been covered by more than 2200 artists and is the second most played song in radio history. Due to their standard practice, the song is credited to “Lennon-McCartney”, in 2000 Paul asked Yoko if they could change it to “McCartney-Lennon” but she refused.

3. Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Specter – “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” (1964). Estimated earnings: $32 million

Super producer (and convicted murderer) Phil Spector applied his “Wall of Sound” production techniques to this massive hit. Spector also insisted (against everyone’s judgement) that the writers add the now-famous line “and he is gone, gone, gone, Whoa, whoa, whoa”. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” is the number one most played song in radio history. Interestingly, just like the #5 song “Unchained Melody”, the song received a massive boost thanks to a Righteous Brothers cover version that has appeared in dozens of movies, most notably 1986’s “Top Gun”.

2. Irving Berlin – “White Christmas” (1940). Estimated earnings: $36 million

Written by a Jewish immigrant from Russia, no song really captures the heart of Christmas like this song. Bing Crosby’s cover of “White Christmas” has sold over 100 million units since to date worldwide.

1. Hill Sisters – “Happy Birthday” (1893). Estimated earnings: $50 million

Most people have no idea that the song you sing at every birthday party ever is copyrighted material. The song was written by a pair of sisters who were kindergarten teachers. Ownership of the song has traded hands several times over the last century. In 1990 Warner Chappell paid $15 million for the rights. Technically it’s illegal to sing “Happy Birthday” in a large group of unrelated people (like an office party) without paying a royalty to the current copyright holder Warner Music Group (which is owned by a private corporate conglomerate called Access Industries). Today the song brings in $2 million a year in royalties ($5000 per day). It costs $25,000 to use the song in a movie or TV show which explains why you often see the characters sing an odd, amalgamated version on screen. This also explains why chain restaurants sing their own custom songs for a guest’s birthday. The copyright for “Happy Birthday” expires in 2030 in the United States and 2016 in the European Union, at which point we can all finally sing Happy Birthday without writing a royalty check.


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