The key to a song generating consistent royalties comes down to one word… use. The more a song is used, the more it’s heard and the more chances to earn royalties it receives.
How that use is generated can depend on a number of factors. Most commonly it’s just a factor of sheer popularity. When a popular act releases a hit song, it’s going to generate a lot of plays.
But generally, that’s a fleeting spike. To put a track into the strata of long-lasting royalty earnings, it typically needs one of the following assists:
Holiday Music: After all, Christmas comes every year, and with it come Christmas parties, Christmas ads, Christmas movies, and many other things Christmas related that provide an excuse to play classic holiday music again.
Soundtracks: When an already popular song is used in an equally popular movie or TV show, it can quickly find itself in a new tier of royalty earnings. Not only does the song get royalties in the airing of the movie or show, its use in either introduces the song to new viewers and listeners, thereby increasing standalone spins after the movie ends.
Covers: In many cases, the original recording of a song goes nowhere, but finds new life after a different performer releases their unique interpretation of it. In other cases the original is so iconic other artists simply have to record their own version out of homage. Either way, covers not only pay publishing royalties to the original songwriter, but also help find new audiences for the music.
Just take a look at the top 10 royalty generating songs today. All have one or more of the above factors in play.
(Note: “Happy Birthday” has entered public domain and is no longer collecting royalties, and as such has lost its long-standing position at the top of this list.)
10. “Candle In the Wind” (Elton John and Bernie Taupin)
Elton John actually performed two versions of the song, both about the untimely death of two iconic women. The original was written for Marilyn Monroe. He then re-recorded it as “Goodbye England’s Rose” for Princess Di. The latter wound up more popular, topping charts globally and won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance in 1998. So in a way he created his own cover.
9. “The Christmas Song” (Mel Torme and Bob Wells)
Otherwise known by it’s more recognizable lyric “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” it was first recorded by Nat King Cole. The song since has been covered hundreds of times by the likes of Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Garth Brooks, and many more.
8. “Oh Pretty Woman” (Roy Orbison and Bill Dees)
A hit song in its own right, “Pretty Woman” didn’t start racking in Top-10 level royalties though until in became the title track for the 1990 Hollywood blockbuster of the same name. It’s also been covered by a wide range of acts, from Van Halen to Al Green to John Mellencamp. And after controversial rap group 2 Live Crew created an unauthorized vulgar parody of it, the song found itself the focus of a fair-use lawsuit, which ultimately was decided in the Supreme Court (which 2 Live Crew won).
7. “Every Breathe You Take” (Sting)
A massive hit, The Police song spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Then Puff Daddy sampled the guitar track in the Notorious BIG tribute song “I’ll Be Missing You,” winning a Grammy and selling 7 million copies. But since now-Diddy never got permission for the sample, Sting sued and in the settlement now receives 100% of the remix’s publishing as well. Between the two, it is said that his sole songwriting credit on this song alone is responsible for 25% of Sting’s lifetime publishing earnings.
6. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (Haven Gillespie and Fred J. Coots)
This one checks off all the boxes. It’s a holiday song, was used in a movie, and covered many times. The original 1934 release mostly made it’s earnings from sheet music sales. But it was the title track of the 1970 animated holiday classic of the same name (starring Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney). And since then multiple superstars, including Mariah Carey, Bruce Springsteen, and Justin Bieber, released covers of their own.
5. “Stand By Me” (Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller)
This was a hit song right out of the gate for Ben E. King, and was covered over 400 times as well. It ultimately became the title track of the 1986 film of the same name, based off a Stephen King short story, starring Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, and Wil Wheaton. Levi’s also used it in a TV ad.
4. “Unchained Melody” by Alex North and Hy Zaret)
Originally written and recorded for a well forgotten movie called “Unchained” in 1955, it wound up being re-recorded by over 650 artists in 500 different languages. The best-known version was by The Righteous Brothers, and used in the 1990 Oscar-winning movie “Ghost.” Additional placements include spots in TV shows "Glee" and "American Idol."
3. “Yesterday” (John Lennon and Paul McCartney)
In addition to the three factors that the rest of this list shares (Christmas song, cover song, and movie soundtrack), another sure-fire way to achieve a top royalty earning status is being a Beatles song. “Yesterday” is the second most-played song in the history of radio. And as one of the more iconic hits of the most iconic band in rock history, it was also covered thousands of times.
2. “You’ve Lost That Feeling” (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Spector)
Another otherwise forgotten song that found fame after being covered by the Righteous Brothers. In addition to claiming the honor of most-played song in radio history, it also played a memorable role in the Tom Cruise megahit “Top Gun” and has been covered over 2,200 times.
1. “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin)
There’s no denying the enduring power of “White Christmas.” With over 100 million copies sold, the perennial classic has countless of covers. But it’s Bing Crosby’s version from the movie “Holiday Inn” (later re-recorded for another holiday movie titled simply “White Christmas") that remains the most popular. And as the unofficial soundtrack to Christmas, it’s going to be awfully difficult to unseat this one until it too enters the public domain.