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One-hit wonders: How much money do they make off of one?


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  • One-hit wonders: How much money do they make off of one?

    I was listening to Nina Hagen's 99 Red Balloons the other day and wondered to myself: "Can someone earn enough off of a song like that to live off of for a long time."

    Anyone in the know on this?

    Or what about something like Yesterday, to take it to the extreme?

    If so, I may write a hit or two. Why not?
    Last edited by Minning Around; 11-18-2016, 11:41 AM.

    "Faith ruled the Dark Ages."

  • #2
    It is possible, but not probable. There are a number of variables to consider. Who owns the publishing, who owns the recording, who holds the copyright...who gave away what for the distribution and promotion?

    In Nina Hagen's case, she had a number of releases [on CBS affilaited and Mercury labels], was the daughter of a well known German theatrical family, had a string of 'club hits' in the late 70s/early 80s and does voice-over work to this day...so she would not be the prime example of someone who lived off one hit.
    Perhaps one of the best examples would be Norman Greenbaum and his 'Spirit in the Sky'*. He wrote it and recorded it [under a major label], and the song went gold in 1970. It keeps managing to come back either by inclusion in other works [Like Apollo 13], or as a cover song. Greenbaum effectively ceased releasing albums around 1972, and has been 'retired' in Northern California for decades.
    I can't come up with a more recent OHW who walked away from the business and lived off the income from that one release. There may be a hip-hop artist who has accomplished this, but not to my knowledge.

    As a songwriter, the odds are stacked against you making enough on one song since there is going to be a large number of fingers in the pie, most of them not yours. If you write and record your own, and hold the publishing...there is certainly $ there, but then there is that pesky distribution deal. Major labels no longer 'nurture' new artists, including paying for heavy radio promotion. They expect you to already have a regional hit and to be mass market-able...there are, of course exceptions, but they typically are not one-hit-wonders.

    Still, there is nothing to say you can't do this...let me know if you need a manager when the time comes...

    *oddly enough, Nina Hagen recorded a cover of SitS...

    Last edited by daddymack; 11-19-2016, 12:15 PM.
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    Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally used up and worn out, shouting '...man, what a ride!'
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    • #3
      Thanks. Nice reply.

      So I'll write, perform, record, produce and distribute my own number one. No problem.

      "Faith ruled the Dark Ages."


      • #4
        Wasn't 99 Red Balloons done by the band Nena?
        The singer is named Nena and the band is too.

        I have a copy of the vinyl EP for the early 80's

        Looks like this. If my memory is correct one side had the German version of the song and the other side is in English. There miht be another song on it, or another mix of the song. I forget.

        Don't me go look for it.

        Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.

        Join Date: Aug 2001
        Location: N. Adams, MA USA
        Posts as of Jan 10th 2013: 82,617


        • #5
          Minning, are you familiar with the typical revenue streams? Do you have a general idea who earns what, and where it comes from? Yes, there are a lot of hands grabbing at the pie, but it's fairly straightforward.

          If we are sticking strictly with songwriting (and you're not going to also be the featured artist recording / releasing it) then the biggest revenue streams are mechanical royalties and performance royalties. The biggest share of the pie (besides your own) comes from your publisher. Typically they get 50% in a traditional publishing deal, but that can vary, depending on the contract.

          Band A records your song and releases it on a CD. (How old school quaint... ) For every one they sell you get paid a royalty from the record company. That's your mechanical royalty. Issuing licenses and collection of mechanical royalties in the USA is handled by the Harry Fox Agency. Currently the statutory rate is 9.10 cents per copy sold for songs of five minutes or less. So if one of your songs is covered by a famous artist and their record sells a million copies and goes platinum, that means $91,000.00 - but don't forget, you'll be splitting that with your publisher. If you wrote all ten songs for the record, then you're looking at splitting nearly one million dollars in mechanical royalties.

          You can always start your own publishing company, and many do... but if you're strictly a songwriter, a publisher can be your best friend because they have the contacts and it's their job to get your songs placed with artists and other paying opportunities such as getting them used in TV shows and commercials, movie soundtracks (which are covered by negotiable sync rights agreements) etc. They don't make money unless you make money. Another possibility if you're a successful writer or artist who writes is to have your publishing company assets administered by another publisher for a fee that's typically less than what they'd get if they were the only publisher.

          Your performance royalties are handled by whichever performance rights society you're affiliated with. BMI, ASCAP and SESAC are the big ones in the USA. They grant a license to anyone who wants to use songs commercially by playing them in their establishment or broadcasting them, such as radio stations, on hold music providers, doctor's offices and supermarkets with music playing, nightclubs with bands or DJs playing, etc. etc. All of that money (less the PRS operating costs) goes into a pool and is divvied out depending on who got played the most that year... which is something the PRS figure out based on playlists, in-field monitoring, and voodoo formulas that they keep pretty secret. Internet music streaming services are subject to a different rate structure (which is 17 cents for every 100 streams done by non-paying subscribers and 22 cents for every 100 streams done by paying subscribers, last time I checked). The more your song is played, the more you'll make on your performance royalties. The amount can be substantial in the case of a hit - especially if the song has legs and continues to be a radio / streaming staple for years. Remember that the USA isn't the only market, and that there are radio stations and streaming in other countries too.

          Now if we were to take a song like Yesterday as an example, you're not only looking at the original version by some relatively unknown band from Liverpool, but literally thousands of cover versions. Each one is paying the songwriter (and publisher) royalties in order to license the song and release the recording, and the writer makes money for every unit sold. Some won't sell very well, but others might. Many of them won't make a dent on radio, but if some do, you (as the songwriter) make the performance royalties too.

          There is also other revenue streams such as the publishing of sheet music, but let's not dig too far into this right now...

          Can you retire and live off the money from a single successful song you wrote? It entirely depends on what the song was and how popular it was... but in the case of something like Yesterday or American Pie, yes, you could buy a house and still have enough money coming in annually to live off of.

          "Look at it this way: think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of 'em are stupider than that."

          - George Carlin

          "It shouldn't be expected that people are necessarily doing what they appear to be doing on records."

          - Sir George Martin, All You Need Is Ears

          "The music business will be revitalized by musicians, not the labels or Live Nation. When the musicians decide to put music first, instead of money, the public will flock to the fruits and the scene will be healthy again."

          - Bob Lefsetz, The Lefsetz Letter


          • Minning Around
            Minning Around commented
            Editing a comment
            Thanks for the insight. Interesting. The last paragraph is what I was wondering about.

          • onelife
            onelife commented
            Editing a comment
            Harrison and Starkey each had 0.8% of Northern Songs and, by the time The Beatles broke up, they had earned enough from 'Yesterday' alone to retire comfortably.

            'Yesterday' is an exception because it is a great song that works in nearly any situation and, when it was released, the world was willing to give anything The Beatles produced a serious listen.

            I also think 'Yesterday' was the begining of the end for The Beatles - but that is a subject for another thread.
            Last edited by onelife; 12-20-2016, 05:52 PM.

          • Minning Around
            Minning Around commented
            Editing a comment
            @ onelife,
            No freaking way. Abbey Road was their best album - but that's a subject for another thread.

        • #6
          For most artists, if you get a one-hit wonder, you need to immediately start touring and selling merchandise, aka "get that show money" because the chances of the other revenue streams drying up really fast is nearly 100%. It's all about striking hard and fast while the iron is hot.