Since everyone is always comparing the comics business to the music business in terms of retail erosion, how about looking at a music success story? The New York Times has a profile of musician Cee Lo Green explaining how, despite the economic decimation in the music industry, he’s been able to make some $20 million this year by rigorously branding himself and expanding his activities to including numerous TV hosting gigs, merchandising, and Vegas. Along the way some interesting iTunes numbers are dropped.
Although “F&^% You,” Cee Lo’s anthemic yet catchy song of moving on was downloaded some 5.3 million times in the US, that doesn’t mean he made $5 million from it.
A chart-topping single could once be counted on to drive big sales of full albums, which bring in greater royalties. But the “unbundling” of albums in the age of iTunes — the loss of album sales at $10 or $15 when consumers can buy a single song for about $1 — has contributed to a 58 percent reduction in album sales since 2000. Despite the success of “Forget You,” “The Lady Killer” has sold only about 450,000 copies in the United States.
“How much do you make on five million singles?” Mr. Mestel asked. “It’s not $5 million. Apple takes a piece of it, the record company takes a piece of it, the producer takes a piece of it, and then Cee Lo gets a piece of it as the artist.”
A recording contract for an act like Cee Lo would typically offer a net royalty of about 15 percent, according to several music executives. That means that for a $1.29 download from iTunes, after Apple takes its standard 30 percent fee, the artist would be paid 13 or 14 cents; for five million downloads, that amounts to about $650,000. As one of five writers of the song, Cee Lo would also make about $45,000 in publishing royalties on those downloads.
To supplement his income Cee Lo’s management company has set him up on many TV shows, including The Voice, on which he’s a judge. He’s also becoming a more Liberace-like entertainment figure with over-the-top performances like the above Grammy show Muppet-impression, co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow from the Grammys.
While the lessons for the comics biz aren’t necessarily directly applicable here — performance art not having as much bearing on a written art form — it does show how once you do get a breakthrough, widening your portfolio and working your ass off can yield the financial results that a simple ASCAP membership once did. Of course, it helps to have actual talent and charisma, as Cee Lo does.