The world of music has been blessed with a wide array of incredibly diverse, and talented songwriters spanning multiple eras of music. But who stands above all as the most successful?
In the following article, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the greatest songwriters of the past and present, and give our take on who we believe is the most successful songwriter of all time.
But, if you are simply looking for a list of the wealthiest songwriters, below are the top 20 most financially successful songwriters as of August 2022.
- Jay Z – $1.3 billion
- Paul McCartney – $1.2 billion
- Andrew Lloyd Webber – $1.2 billion
- Sean Combs – $900 million
- Herb Alpert – $850 million
- Madonna – $850 million
- Bono – $700 million
- Dolly Parton – $650 million
- Bruce Springsteen – $650 million
- Jimmy Buffet – $600 million
- Michael Jackson – $500 million
- Mick Jagger – $500 million
- Dr. Dre – $500 million
- Elton John – $500 million
- Bob Dylan – $500 million
- Jon Bon Jovi – $410 million
- Taylor Swift – $400 million
- Max Martin – $350 million dollars
- Mariah Carey – $320 million
- Tim Rice – $250 million, Don Henley $250 million
Data sourced from www.celebritynetworth.com
How is Success Defined in Music?
You might be scratching your head at some of the names on the list above. No slight on Madonna, but is she really a more successful songwriter than Bob Dylan ($500 million)? In terms of net worth, apparently yes.
But, lists like the one above are hugely problematic and often inaccurate e.g. they may be incredibly wealthy, but this doesn’t mean they have generated wealth solely from songwriting.
They also tend to leave out genuinely gifted and influential songwriters, including but not limited to:
John Lennon, Carole King, Tom Petty, Prince, Brian Wilson, Tom Waits, John Fogerty, Sting, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, Diane Warren, Smokey Robinson, Bill Withers, Patti Smith, Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus, John Mayer, George Harrison, Cat Stevens, Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, Billy Joel, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page, Hall and Oates, Don Henley, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Roger Waters, Kark Knopfler, Barry Gibb, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Bob Marley, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, and numerous others.
This is because rich lists, as implied, are based solely on net worth. For example John Lennon, easily one of the most gifted songwriters of all time, died in 1980 with an estimated net worth of $200 million, meaning he narrowly misses inclusion on the list above.
Net worth is also not comparable if taking into account different eras (more on this shortly), and of course, the business nous of those who achieve a certain level of fame and know how to capitalize on it. Jay Z tops our list above, but is also an astute businessman, with a champagne brand, Armand de Brignac, valued at over $600 million. How much of his wealth can be attributed to his songwriting?
The Oxford dictionary defines success as the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. While Merriam-webster defines success also as the gaining of wealth, respect, or fame.
In this sense, success as a songwriter should also take into account the artist’s influence, level of fame, and additional factors such as longevity, and the impact their music has and continues to have on the world.
There’s also the question of just how much of the songwriting process the artists listed above can take sole responsibility for.
For example, Sean Combs (Aka P Diddy), while involved in the writing process collaborates with co-writers. No slight on P. Diddy, but is it fair to compare an artist such as Sean Combs with Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has composed the music for over 21 musicals, including Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera?
Likewise, has Jay Z had the same musical impact as Bob Dylan? Or are we attaching too much sentiment to the past? Or does my bias show, in that I’m an acoustic guitar-based songwriter? It’s difficult to say.
Other artists included in lists such as the one above may have generated much of their wealth thanks to the profile they have built themselves through music, but not directly from songwriting.
For example, Dr. Dre ($820 million net worth) sold “Beats” the headphone company to Apple Music for a rumored 3 billion dollars back in 2014. While one could argue Dre’s songwriting afforded him the stature required to launch a business with a profile as large as Beats, it would be a stretch to say his net worth is the result of his songwriting, much like Jay Z he’s also a very successful entrepreneur and producer.
Analog to Digital to Subscription-based Streaming Services
Not only that, if comparing songwriters purely on the numbers, it’s hardly a level playing field when comparing eras. Few industries have been disrupted to the same extent by the internet as the music business.
As a result, the music industry has undergone significant, and at times tumultuous change from the analog era (the 60s – 80s) through the digital age (80s – 2005) and now to the subscription-based streaming era. (2005 and on).
For example, in 1970 when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released “Bridge Over Troubled Water” fans had to buy the vinyl LP and have a record player at home to play it on. Nowadays, if you have a subscription to Spotify, own a smartphone, and wireless earbuds you can essentially listen to almost any song you like, anywhere, doing almost anything.
Of course, it also has to be said, advancements in the production side of music also mean there’s a lot more music out there competing for our attention.
The digital era (CDs, DVDs) beginning in the 80s also aligned with a change in consumer behavior. Technology music lovers a more convenient and portable platform for the consumption of music and listening, and subsequently spending habits, as a result, changed.
For example, in 1980 the total revenue generated by the music industry was around 11 billion dollars. At the height of the digital era in the year 2000 total revenue was almost double that at 20 billion dollars, before declining sharply thanks largely to the rise of Napster.
Where a songwriter’s career sits on that timeline will clearly play a huge role in how commercially successful they are.
In fact, thanks to Napster and other file sharing services, it was estimated that in 2008 approx. 40 billion songs were shared illegally, which accounts for around 95% of all music downloaded in that period.
This is thought to be responsible for the decline in revenue generated by the music industry over this period of time, which has only begun to see a period of growth again as of 2015. The first period of growth for the music industry since the turn of the century.
The Times, they have a-Changed
Speaking of earnings, it’s also true that album sales are no longer how a commercially successful songwriter or artist makes the majority of their income.
Not so long ago an artist would release an album and then tour to promote the album. Nowadays, the wealthiest artists make the majority of their money from ticket sales and merchandise.
In fact, revenue from touring (pre-Covid) is up by 50% while revenue generated from album sales is well down by over 80%. Clearly, income generated from touring is not making up for the loss of revenue generated from album sales but in any case, a major shift has definitely occurred.
It’s also true that album sales have dwindled. Alternatively, by releasing a constant stream of singles record labels keep major artists in the spotlight, rather than rolling out an artist every 2-3 years or more.
In the past, many of the great songwriters sold millions of albums but didn’t necessarily have hit singles (more on this shortly).
Success may also be defined in terms of influence. While Taylor Swift may have earned more than Kurt Cobain as a songwriter, and has no doubt inspired thousands of aspiring musicians to pick up the guitar it’s unlikely she has been responsible for changing the musical landscape to the same extent. After all, Cobain was a game-changer, almost single-handedly leading a musical revolution in the early 90s that changed popular music as we know it.
And if we are talking purely about music influence, who has played more of a role in popular music than the Beatles? Despite the fact that John Lennon isn’t even included on our initial list of top-earning songwriters.
Something also has to be said about a songwriter’s longevity and ability to write “timeless music”.
The music industry has had its share of one-hit wonders. The songwriters who have been successful over long periods of time e.g. the partnership of Elton John/Bernie Taupin have had hits spanning decades. Rocket Man was released in 1972, and Elton John is still charting as recently as 2020.
In the streaming era we also regularly see artists re-entering the charts. At the time of writing this article, Kate Bush and Metallica have both re-entered the charts with music recorded in the mid-80s.
A Rolling Stone Poll conducted way back in 2011 had the following songwriters (ranked in order of popularity) as voted for by Rolling Stone readers.
- Bob Dylan
- John Lennon/Paul McCartney
- John Lennon
- Bruce Springsteen
- Paul McCartney
- Neil Young
- Mick Jagger/Keith Richards
- Paul Simon
- Joni Mitchell
- Elton John/Bernie Taupin
And while this is a good indication (based on public sentiment) and includes a number of “timeless” artists, songwriters fall in and out of favor all the time.
If this same poll was conducted 5 years earlier, or later for that matter, would anyone really be surprised to see names such as Billy Joel, David Bowie, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Freddie Mercury, or Kurt Cobain included?
Perhaps another method of calculating the success of a songwriter is to count the number of hits a songwriter has had.
According to wikipedia.com, Paul McCartney with 31 and John Lennon with 25 have had the most no. 1 songs.
When it comes to Lennon/McCartney perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that they wrote 12 no. 1 songs between 1964 and 1965. Considering it takes many artists 3+ years to release an album of new material nowadays, that feat alone is remarkable.
Third on the list is Max Martin with 25.
If you haven’t heard of Max Martin, you are almost sure to have heard his songwriting at some point. He has written for the likes of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Coldplay, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and Robin Thicke to name just a few.
Fourth on the list is Mariah Carey with 18 no. 1 songs. She wrote all of them.
Dr. Luke (songwriter for Keisha, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus to name just a few) is 5th with 17 no. 1’s and Barry Gibb of the Beegees comes in at 6th with 16 no. 1 hits.
Of course, many great songwriters have never had a no. 1 song. As it often comes down to who else has released music at the same period of time.
In the case of Bob Dylan, while he might have been awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, he has only had 1 no. 1 song, and that occurred as recently as 2020.
Neil Young, despite being highly influential, has only had one top ten hit, “Heart of Gold” released in 1972 which spent one solitary week at the top of the charts.
Bruce Springsteen has never had a no. 1 song despite being recognized as one of the great songwriters and Kurt Cobain for all his influence peaked at no. 6 on the Billboard charts with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, incredibly being Nirvana’s only top ten song, despite the album “Nevermind” shifting over 17.5 million units.
The Most Succesful Songwriter of all Time
Taking all of the above into account, it’s difficult to go past Sir Paul McCartney as the most successful songwriter of all time.
He is the equal highest earner of all time in music (level with Andrew Lloyd Webber), has the most no. 1 hits on the Billboard charts, and along with John Lennon has had more of an influence over the next generation of songwriters than anyone.
Songs such as “Yesterday”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Let it Be” are some of the finest songs ever crafted. And while critics will argue that McCartney benefited from Lennon’s songwriting, in terms of songwriting credits, he also had an extremely successful post-Beatles career.
In fact, after the breakup of the Beatles McCartney racked up 9 more no. 1 songs with the band “Wings”, as a solo artist and in collaboration with Micheal Jackson on the hit song “Say, Say, Say” which sat atop the Billboard charts in 1983 for a total of 6 weeks.
McCartney has been named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful songwriter in history, has 8 Brit Awards, 18 grammy awards, and two American Music awards to his name, and has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth the 2nd in 1997 for his contribution to music.
Put simply there is no other songwriter in history with as many accolades or markers for success as Sir Paul McCartney.
Following McCartney, it’s difficult to go past John Lennon, for many of the same reasons, who himself had an enormous influence on the next generation of songwriters and music as a whole. If you need evidence of this fact, take a look at just how many prominent artists have covered “Imagine” Lennon’s signature post-Beatles anthem.
The great Bob Dylan who epitomizes songwriting and whose lyrical genius is unmatched also deserves mention, and for many, as evidenced by the Rolling Stone reader poll mentioned above would be considered the finest of all.
While songwriting is a business, it’s also an art, and any ranking of artists in any capacity perhaps misses the entire point, to begin with. It feels grubby, leaving one feeling in need of a shower.
While I have listed who I consider the most successful songwriter of all time above, the truth is the real value of a songwriter is their ability to make you feel something through their music and that is and always will be entirely subjective.