One hit wonders - living off royalties?

I was watching VH1’s “100 All Time Greatest One Hit Wonders” and I began to, uh, wonder: Is it really possible to live off the royalties of just one monster hit? It seems that Norman Greenbaum is doing quite well off his single, albeit great, hit “Spirit in the Sky.”

Just how much could have made from this song?

Actually, until fairly recently, the guy who recorded the song doesn’t receive the royalty unless he also composed the song or at least took a composing credit.

Consequently, once his initial fee is paid, Mr. Greenbaum may not have seen a dime. (This assumes he didn’t write the song. From his website, it appears he might have.)

This rule has been somewhat controversial, because there are a number of musicians living in poverty even though they’ve had hit songs that are still are still pretty popular. They’ve never seen a royalty because the songs were written by someone else, usually a staff composer employed by the record label.


Since the 60s, of course, the songwriters were usually performing the songs, so they get the royalties.

A songwriter can usually make a decent bit of change from the royalties from one song, but it’d be hard to live solely on royalties.

Are you sure that’s correct? I thought there were two things involved - a ‘performance’ royalty, and a ‘songwriting’ royalty. As far as I know, the performer gets paid whenever a copy of his or her performance is sold, or when it’s played on the radio. But the songwriter gets paid for any covers of the song as well.

Also, there’s the tour money. Some of these one-hit wonders toured when their song was at the top of the charts, and made big dough from the tour.

But record companies are involved here, so I expect we’ll hear about sleazy practices, bad accounting, and outright screwing over of people.

For what it’s worth, I remember seeing an interview on TV with a one-hit wonder, and the interviewer said, “Are you unhappy that you’re only known for that one song?” The answer: “Well, that one song has kept me living in a pretty good lifestyle, so I have no complaints”. This was a song from the 60’s or 70’s. I wish I could remember which one it was - it might have been “American Pie”.

The performer gets royalty for being on the actual recording. A friend of mine, drummer, who was in a band that had a few hit singles about ten years ago, and put out a couple of albums, but didn’t write anything, still gets a check för between $5-10.000 a year. This from a group that was very big here in Sweden, sime-big in Europe and didn’'t make the American charts.
Not something to live off, but still not small change. He’s a Radio D.J. now, and that extra money comes in handy every year.

Now, If you were to write and perform a song, that’s a really big hit, and it’s a true one-hit wonder, yes, it’s possible to live from the royalty. The Knack’s My Sharona sold 6 million copies that summer over 20 years ago. Even if the writer woulld only get $1 per copy, it’s still enough to liv on for the rest of your life, invested wisely (maybe not a major concern among young rock stars).

Then there are all the greatest hits albums produced every year. The change in Royalty for my friend has to do with this. He said that when there is an Olympic Game or something like that, he makes more money, simply because the record companies crank out “theme albums,” to recycle old music and sell it again. Those years his royalty check is quite a lot bigger.

Imagine if you had a US + World #1 smash!

Which group is that The Gaspode? I’m guessing Europe but could be any band…

The Creeps

$1 a copy for a single would be inconceivably high. Only a handful of the biggest stars (e.g., Michael Jackson a decade ago) get royalties at that rate for entire albums.

Maybe €1 was a little high: But then again this shows that it’s not uncoomon to make €2 from each album sold.
It gets complicated depending on an number of factors: Did you publish the song yourself, was it released on your own label ASF.
The OP was if it’s possible to live of royalties from a OneHitWonder, and I say it is, if you manage your returns wisely, and set up things smartly beforehand. Not a common feature for musicians, though. This usually shows up later in the career, when they see how they were screwed by the record company on their first deal.

The 16% royalty rate described in that link would be very, very high. I have read the recording contract of a pretty major rock star I did some legal work for, and it was nowhere near a 16% royalty rate. Can’t remember what it was, but it was definitely single digits. Like 5 or 6%, maybe?

(Yes, you would immediately recognize the name, and no, I can’t tell you.)

What baffles me is that they tour at all. I mean, I can’t imagine being at a concert saying “We came here to hear ‘Achy Breaky’ so play it so we can all go home.”

Where’s aha when you need him? :wink:

It’s possible, but I’d say highly unlikely. As was mentioned, you’d need to know how to manage the money, sign the right papers, know all the loopholes, and make the correct deals with a bunch of greedy sleezebags who’ve already been screwing musicians with a lot more experience and industry smarts than you outta millions for decades… assuming they’d even permit you to make the recording if they didn’t get a big enough cut.

Then you gotta come up with and/or perform a song that will be a hit (hard enough even for big stars), and remain popular for the rest of your life.

To do this all in one fell swoop to set yourself up for the next 40 years would require so much work, coincidence, and luck (yup… I’d say 85% luck) that a guy would be just as well off to apply that energy to an actual carreer… say rock star manager?

See what happened to John Fogerty, when he was in Creedence? Falco?
Why do you think Madonna has her own lable (Maverick), as well as Rolling Stones and a few of the other biggies? Why do movie producers/directors set up their own productions companies?

But then, that’s after the inital contract has expired and when they have clout to negotiate a good distribution deal. Madonna’s records still get distribution from her original comapny, WB, but she’s in a position to say: “I’m outta here, but you gays can still get the deal to distribute… providing…”

Chaz Jankel was with the Blockheads of Ian Dury fame. He wrote Ai No Corrida, which was released by Quincy Jones. He hasn’t had the need to work since.

I’d say that most OneHitWonders generate a lot of money for the reciord company, and short lived fame and OK income for the writers/artists. It is still possible to live off the income, theoretically.

We should add that a big hit generally also ensures a perpetual career in live performances. Maybe not stadium rock, but there are plenty of live act clubs around that will hire anyone who’s had a hit. And they’ll make a lot more than the local band. Groups like Trooper, or Flock of Seagulls, or whatever, can probably still pull down a couple of grand a night playing medium-sized clubs.

Slight hijack here: My ex-wife wrote a book on fortune telling with runes that was published by Llewellyn back in the late 1980s. The book was published in paperback, and while it never did big business, it’s still in print, and she still receives quarterly royalties. Nothing huge – I’m not sure anymore since we’re not in touch – it took her about five months to write, and she’s been getting money for over two decades.

In other news, last month’s “Vanity Fair” magazine had an article on Roz Russell written by a friend and co-worker. She got him involved in a movie (possibly “Angels with Dirty Faces”) and he’s still getting royalty checks from that, and it’s 35 years later.

Some of the oddest 1-hit wonders are in the book world.
You often read that a “first novel” will get only a tiny advance, and usually a restricted printing, say $10K and 10,000.

But a great many famous authors got famous off the first book, and a high proportion never had a second. I just wonder how much Gone With The Wind netted the author versus everyone else who grabbed its coattails.