Thursday, 10 January 2013

TV Review: The 10 Richest Songs In The World: BBC4 Part 1

The pop song: 3 minutes of disposable tuneage often farted out in half an hour on the back of a fag packet but whose legacy can transcend generations and can be the soundtrack to billions of lives.  Those lucky few who manage to harness the intangible alchemy of lyrics and music may never have to work again. I'm looking at you Reg Presley.

There are many ways a songwriter can get paid. Selling albums is the obvious one with writers getting 7 to 8p per track. For downloads margins are squeezed even more to 4p which is perhaps a sign of the times. When you think new CD albums go for around £10 and downloaded albums go for £7 on iTunes there seems to be more "skimming" going on then at a mafia owned casino.

Whilst the rise of technology and illegal downloading has hampered writers earning potential it has also opened up different revenue streams.  Ring tones, web licensing, computer games, adverts, karaoke machines and shopping centres all offer alternate earning potential for aspiring song writers proving the demise of the music industry has been exaggerated.

Presented by the laconic Mark Radcliffe The 10 Richest Songs In The World is a fascinating and well researched documentary on the business behind the music detailing which of the songs we know and love/hate have earned the most moolah. Is it a song by the Beatles, Adele, Frank Sinatra?  Sadly, Shadap You Face failed to make the cut.

So here's a round up of the 10 biggest earners in the history of music...Ba baa ba baa ba baa ba baa ba ba ba, ba ba baa ba baa baaaaaa BA!

10. 'The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)', Mel Torme & Bob Wells. Earnings: £8.5m

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Cash flow bigger than J.Lo's"

or so the perennial Christmas classic should go. Written in 45 minutes by Bob Wells and jazz legend Mel Torme AKA "The Velvet Fog"  (sounding more a wrestler than a crooner in that incarnation) it was an effort to take their minds of the stifling summer heat of 1944 by writing a song to conjure up images of a chilly Xmas. Or as Torme puts it.

"stay cool by thinking cool"

The song has been murdered by the likes of Michael Bolton and Barry Manilow but the incarnation that is best known is Nat King Cole's. He liked it so much he recorded it four times. Despite keeping the Torme clan financial secure for generations (his son James is interviewed and is now the living embodiment of Hugh Grant's character in About A Boy) Mel was dismissive of the track calling it

"my annuity"

9. 'Oh Pretty Woman', Roy Orbison & Bill Dees £10.5m

Certainly not a one hit wonder this is The Big O's biggest earner.

Guitar legend James Burton came up with the walking guitar riff and inspiration for the lyrics came from Roy's wife Claudette who came in to ask Roy for some shopping money. Song writing partner Bill Dees quipped "pretty woman don't need money" and the rest is history.

Whilst a fantastic song I was surprised to see this in the top 10. This is mainly due to the song's resurrection in the 1990 whore-with-a-heart- rom-com Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts & Richard Gere. It exposed the song to a whole new generation whilst ensuring a sizable fee for the licencing rights.

Normally artists are only too keen to have their songs covered but Orbison took exception to an unauthorised rap version by horny sex pests 2 Live Crew. Sample lyric:

[Big hairy woman] You need to shave that stuff
[Big hairy woman] You know, I bet it's tough
[Big hairy woman] All that hair, it ain't legit
Cause you look like Cousin It

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court who amazingly ruled in favour of 2 Live Crew saying that the song was a parody that did not require permission and their version was protected by fair use.

8. 'Every Breath You Take', Sting £13.5m

As an anthem for stalkers everywhere Every Breath You Take has done very well for Gordon Sumner earning him a cool £2000 a day.  This one song also accounts for a quarter of all The Police's combined PRS.

Sting's bank balance was swollen even further when Puff Daddy/P Diddy sampled the track for his ode to the late Biggie Smalls I'll Be Missing You which sold over 7 million copies. Sting's lawyers played hardball with Diddy when he requested a songwriting credit for his raps. They told him to get stuffed and Sting continues to get 100% of the writers credit.

Andy Summers is interviewed in the documentary and still seems a bit pissed off that he didn't get a writing credit for the riff that he came up with that was the real hook that Diddy used on the track.  Summers seemed to infer some cloak and dagger implication about a "special agreement" in the Police with regards to royalties seeing as Sting shouldered the bulk of the writing. Whether this agreement extended to once fortnightly tantric sex sessions with Trudie Styler could not be confirmed at the time of writing.

7. 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town', John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie £16.5m

Another festive money spinner trotted out on the usual yuletide collections and covered by every cheeseball under the sun (Bing Crosby, Perry Como, The Jackson 5 (my favourite version), Springsteen, Alice Cooper and Justin Bieber have all had a stab).

It's the first of the classic Xmas songs written way back in Depression era 1934 by Tin Pan Alley composer Haven Gillespie and John Frederick Coots.  It was initially thought to be a lightweight children's tune they had little hope for when they offered it to radio DJ and singer Eddie Cantor. He performed it live on his show and there were 100000 sheet music sales by the following morning.

6. 'Stand By Me', Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller £17m

"Bum bum ba ba bum bum etc.."

And so goes one of the most memorable baselines in music. Its simplicity is its strength operating as it does standard 50's chord changes (AKA the Stand By Me progression).  Another that was knocked out in half an hour, Ben E King never had any intention of recording it but wrote it with The Drifters in mind.  They opted not to record it but King ended up taking up the song himself when he he started humming the melody at the Brill Building offices of legendary write/producer combo Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber.

They quickly put the song together with Stoller/Leiber agreeing a generous 25/25/50% split in favour of King. Such largesse enabled nice-guy-King to start the Stand By Me Foundation, a charity which funds music college scholarships. More importantly it allowed Ben E to finally be able to afford an "N" and a "Y" for his name.

The song's position in the financial top 10 is due in part to the fact it has been covered over 400 times (although none are better than the original). It was then  resurrected in 1986 by Rob Reiner's coming of age movie classic of the same name and went to number one off the back of a Levi's advert in 1987.

King sums it up nicely

"If it wasn’t for Stand By Me I’d probably be driving a cab."

If you are quick you can catch the documentary on iPlayer for the next 2 days

Next Week the countdown continues - The Richest Songs in the World: Part 2 - #5 to #1


  1. RIP Ben E King (of Peace). The planet has lost a gentle, good man whose music made us all sing - heaven has gained a gentle, good soul whose music will last forever.

  2. Sad but it's around this time a lot of soul greats seem to be meeting their makers