Country Music's Highest-Paid Artists 2021
Fueled by the recent catalog boom, Blake Shelton claims country's cash crown. But the pandemic's effects on a live-first genre can still be seen throughout the top ten.
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Over the past decade, Blake Shelton’s career has looked more like rock star’s than a country crooner’s: he joined The Voice opposite Adam Levine, appeared in a Hollywood flick based on a video game, and even married alt-rocker Gwen Stefani.
He’s also earning like a rock star these days. Shelton raked in $83 million in 2021, thanks mostly to a catalog sale worth more than $50 million. That number puts him in the same ballpark as Motley Crue and the Red Hot Chili Peppers—both of whom benefited from selling music rights as well—and makes Shelton the highest-paid country act on the planet.
Fellow television star Luke Bryan ranks second with earnings of $40 million, boosted by his American Idol gig and endorsements with brands from Bayer to Jockey. The eternal Dolly Parton, who famously held onto her copyrights and launched her own Dollywood empire among other business ventures, comes in third with $30 million. The international icon is also an emblem of country’s gender wage gap: she’s the only woman in the top ten.
The rest of the list shows how deeply mainstream country music has been affected by the pandemic. Most top acts can spend a summer touring amphitheaters, arenas, and even stadiums. And unlike pop stars whose heavy production means they’re lucky to take home 30% of gross ticket sales, country acts tend to travel lighter and keep much more. In 2021, however, many big names curtailed their time on the road or skipped it altogether.
“Although touring remains a huge component of artist revenue, Covid-19 taught entertainers about the power of expanding their brands beyond the traditional staples,” says Brittany Hodak, cofounder of The Superfan Company and author of Creating Superfans. “You see artists who’ve opened restaurants, launched lines of spirits, and ventured into licensing deals for everything from clothing to furniture. Superstars of today know that music revenue is just the starting point.”
If we contrast the haul country music’s top ten brought in before the pandemic to their current earnings, we can clearly see the decline. Back in 2019, when I last compiled this list for Forbes, country’s top paid stars earned $311 million. That number dwindled to $291 million in 2021—a decrease of 6.4%. Take out Shelton’s one-time windfall, and the dip is more like 22%.
In any case, familiar names abound. Chris Stapleton—who just won three Grammys and is up for more hardware at tonight’s CMT Music Awards—ranks fourth with $26 million. Florida Georgia Line rounds out the top five with $25 million thanks mostly to a catalog deal of their own.
The youngest name on the list, Morgan Wallen cracked the top ten in a year marred by controversy. After a TMZ video of him using a racial slur surfaced in February 2021, he was suspended by his record and dropped by a host of streaming services. But his Dangerous: The Double Album still moved 3.2 million units in 2021 en route to overall earnings of $16 million.
The remaining listmembers made the cut due to a smattering of tour dates. And as live music returns to form with Covid-19 rates down from their winter heights, artist paydays should bounce back across the country landscape. Perhaps future rankings will include some newer voices—like Kacey Musgraves, Kane Brown, and Maren Morris—whose earnings haven’t yet caught up to their cultural clout.
One name who seems to be a lock for next year’s list is Jason Aldean. He recently sold 90% of his catalog for upwards of $100 million, likely setting a record for the genre in the process, but it was announced after this year’s cutoff. Unlike many of his peers, he’s not shy about his business moves.
“If I have to be the country guy that stands there and takes grenades for everybody else, for the betterment of our business,” he once told me in regard to a previous deal, “for now and for the future, then I can carry that load if I need to.”
Read on to see the full top ten. The list measures pretax earnings for calendar 2021 before deducting expenses for agents, managers and lawyers. The figures are generated by interviewing industry insiders and crunching numbers from outlets like Pollstar and Luminate.
Country Music’s 10 Highest-Paid Artists 2021
1. Blake Shelton ($83 million)
Country’s cash king cleaned up thanks to a catalog sale for north of $50 million, along with his lucrative gig on The Voice and a smattering of concerts.
2. Luke Bryan ($40 million)
Boosted by American Idol checks, Bryan also banked millions by partnering with brands like Jockey and Bayer—and grossed $33.6 million on the road.
3. Dolly Parton ($30 million)
The immortal singer-songwriter continued to cash in on her vast library of copyrights, as well as her Dollywood empire and water park.
4. Chris Stapleton ($26 million)
Three Grammys wins, including Country Album of the Year, accompany Stapleton’s strong music sales; he also tallied $35 million on the road.
5. Florida Georgia Line ($25 million)
The duo, on hiatus as of February, mostly owes its appearance on this list to a publishing catalog sale courtesy of Tempo Music Investments last April.