The World's Highest-Paid Musicians Of 2021
Music's top earners banked $2.3 billion, led by Springsteen and Jay-Z. Neil Young, pictured below, ranks No. 11 with $78 million, mostly from a huge catalog sale.
Your weekly dose of music, media & money. Click here for a full subscription.
Neil Young has accumulated all sorts of accolades throughout his illustrious career, from 30 Grammy nominations to something akin to knighthood in his native Canada. And though he’s been a steady earner, he never made it onto any of the music wealth lists I released in the decade-plus I spent at Forbes.
It took him 76 years, but now Young is finally among music’s highest-paid acts. The “Heart of Gold” singer tallied $78 million in 2021, thanks almost entirely to the sale of half his catalog to Merck Mercuriadis’ Hipgnosis Songs Fund last January. The number appears to be a career best, but it’s only good for No. 11 on this year’s list of top-earning musicians.
The rankings came out today, with No. 1-10 appearing in a story I wrote for Rolling Stone. Familiar names including Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Taylor Swift occupy the top ten spots. Only my loyal readers get to see No. 11-15, which you can find by scrolling down toward the bottom of this post.
Among the top 15 names, there’s a common theme: the majority of acts are rockers who sold their catalogs amid the boom in music copyrights over the past year. That means there’s not much diversity on the list, unless your definition of diversity includes subgenres of rock: two-thirds of these acts are comprised of white men. There are only three women in the top 15, another unfortunate reflection of music’s pay gap, with roots as old as the industry itself.
Even international superstars like Drake and BTS, two of the most successful acts on the planet, couldn’t compete with this spate of megadeals despite huge years of their own. Ten of the artists in the top 15 sold catalogs for $50 million or more; five of them closed nine-figure deals, led by Bruce Springsteen’s $550 million transaction.
So why is this boom happening, and why now?
“There are a lot of different reasons,” says Josh Gruss, chief of Round Hill Music, which has poured $1.3 billion into buying catalogs over the past decade. “At the end of the day, music is something that people need in their lives … the way [artists] get paid is a lot more like a utility than it was before streaming, when it was just a one-time purchase.”
The music business has changed drastically in recent years, and so has the way artists make money. Back in 2019, a dozen acts grossed over $100 million on the road alone. Not a single band achieved that feat in 2020. And only one did so in 2021: The Rolling Stones, who rank No. 12 on this year’s list.
Paradoxically, the low streaming payouts that spurred more and more acts to tour heavily in the Before Times are part of the same ecosystem that turns catalog hits into a recurring revenue stream. That’s partly what has attracted financial firms to line up alongside record companies to buy music rights.
“There’s great irony in the fact that while Wall Street takes note of songs’ value, the digital platforms often don’t,” says Jody Gerson, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group. “Which means we must continue to fight for our songwriters, both in terms of the value of what they create and in terms of the treating songs as art, not as assets.”
Without further ado, here’s the rest of the list. Estimates are for calendar year 2021 and reflect pretax income before deducting expense for managers, agents, lawyers, living expenses and the like. They’re compiled by yours truly through a combination of scouring public documents and interviewing industry insiders with knowledge of key deals.
11. Neil Young ($78 million)
Perhaps the least likely suspect for a catalog-selling caper, Young nevertheless parted with half of his 1,180-song oeuvre a year ago, receiving a hefty eight-figure sum that accounts for the bulk of his payday. Hipgnosis chief Merck Mercuriadis offered nervous diehards an olive branch, promising there would never be a “Burger of Gold” fast food ad.
12. The Rolling Stones ($75 million)