Where are musicians making money these days? On the road — and that’s about it: Alan Cross

Larry Mullen Jr., The Edge, Bono and Adam Clayton of U2 perform on stage during at Madison Square Garden on July 1, 2018 in New York City. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for NLM

We can credit The Beatles as being the first stadium band. When they played Shea Stadium on Aug. 15, 1965, no other act had played in front of so many people (55,000) and raked in so much money ($304,000 or about $2.4 million in 2018 dollars; all dollar figures in this piece are U.S.) in ticket sales for a single gig. It was a nice payday but paled in comparison when it came to revenue from record sales.

Here’s a Led Zeppelin ticket stub from a show in Seattle on July 17, 1977. Note the price.

Where are musicians making money these days? On the road — and that’s about it: Alan Cross - image

Ten dollars seems cheap, but that was the equivalent to around $40 in 2018. Selling at a clip of 72,000 tickets a day, that 1977 tour was a record-breaker in terms of box office grosses. A typical show would bring in $750,000 (the equivalent of $3.1 million today), a huge number. Consider, too, that manager Peter Grant had extracted a 90-10 split between the band and promoters.

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Again, good earnings, but when you consider that estimated value of “Stairway to Heaven” is $500 million (no, that’s not a typo), Led Zeppelin tour earnings amounted to what Jimmy Page might find under the driver’s seat of his car.

How things have changed.

Billboard magazine keeps tabs on how much artists earn with the periodic publishing of rich lists. It just revealed the list of the biggest earners so far in 2018. Revenue streams sure are different than they were in the past.

U2 is the biggest moneymaker this year, bringing in $54.4 million. But look how they made that cash.

Touring: $52.2 million
Music sales: $1.1 million
Publishing: $705,200
Streaming: $624,500

In the Olden Days — i.e. pre-streaming, pre-downloading — U2 would have seen the bulk of their earnings come from album sales. Now they make more than 50 times more by being on the road than selling records. Even with a new album and the residual good feelings from The Joshua Tree 30 Tour, income from publishing and streaming is no more than a rounding error for them.

Garth Brooks comes in second place. His $52.2 million in income breaks down like this:

Touring: $46.7 million
Sales: $4.8 million
Publishing: $190,500
Streaming: $596,000

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Keep in mind that Garth Brooks is the second best-selling artist in the world behind only The Beatles. But those days were back in the ’90s when we were still buying CDs by the boatload. Brooks is also adverse to the whole concept of streaming, so if fans want his music, they have to acquire it the old-fashioned way on CD.

Metallica is next on the list with a total of $43.2 million.

Touring: $30.7 million
Sales: $8.7 million
Publishing: $1.6 million
Streaming: $2.2 million

Metal fans still like their physical music, which explains why Metallica over-indexes in terms of sales when compared to almost everyone else on this list. But when it comes to big bucks, it’s all about ticket sales.

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Then we encounter Bruno Mars in fourth spot with $40.7 million.

Touring: $33.9 million
Sales: $2.6 million
Streaming: $2.8 million
Publishing: $1.4 million

We can clearly see the difference in certain revenue streams when it comes to a more contemporary act. While the majority of Mars’ money came from concerts, a healthy $2.8 million came from streaming. That’s the younger audience effect.

Ed Sheeran is in fifth place with $31.3 million. His revenue streams are among the most diversified.

Touring: $19.9 million
Sales: $4 million
Streaming: $4.2 million
Publishing: $3.2 million

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Sheeran was also the most-played artist on radio through 2017, which has carried through to this year. That explains the fat publishing number.

An examination of the finances of the remaining 45 acts on this list reveals some interesting facts.

  • The majority (29) of the artists are “heritage acts,” a nice way of calling them old — sorry, “superstar acts from the pre-streaming era.”
  • Only two acts made the list without touring: Drake (he made most of his money through streaming with $8.7 million, $3 million more than second-place Future) and Taylor Swift (she’s out on the road now, but made $5 million through music sales through the first half of the year.)
  • Rock is the dominant genre, taking 24 of the 50 spots, followed by pop (nine), country (nine), and hip-hop/R&B (eight).
  • Hip-hop/R&B artists earn the most from streaming, although Imagine Dragons ($2.2 million) and Twenty One Pilots ($2 million) do okay.
  • Heritage acts make shockingly little when it comes to streaming. Even with his vast catalogue and hit Broadway, Bruce Springsteen grossed just $444,700 in streaming revenues. Guns N’ Roses? Despite the massive success of their Not in This Lifetime Tour and a much-hyped reissue of Appetite for Destruction, their sales total for the first half of the year is $655,600.
  • Even more fascinating is Paul McCartney who earned just $1.2 million from streaming.

Topsy-turvy? You bet. The future for everyone is not in selling music but in moving concert tickets and convincing your fanbase to stream your music.

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Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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