Thriller: Jackson's songwriters dancing on his grave (on their way to the bank)

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A few years ago, the Irish Independent wrote about Gerry Rafferty, a one-hit wonder whose 1978 song "Baker Street" makes him more than $150,000 a year in royalties, penny by penny, each time it's played on the radio. And that song was mostly cool in the confines of Britain. Appeal to a wider audience and the take increases: Don McLean's "American Pie" reportedly nets more than $418,000.

Write a song that taps into the American zeitgeist -- say, one that becomes the theme song for a national mourning, as Elton John accomplished upon Diana's death with "Candle in the Wind" -- and a songwriter can start drawing up plans for additional summer houses. Maybe three or four of them.

Michael Jackson's songwriters will never write another note for him, but the windfall will continue for years. They never have to work again.

ASCAP, one of the three main music licensing companies, estimated in 2007 that a single song on an album would pay out 9.1¢ per sale, or a total of $9,100 on sales of 100,000 physical CDs alone. Use a song one time on a TV show and ASCAP estimates the price at $6,000 to $10,000, and if the performance is released on video (you just know the tribute concert will be), more money is in store.


The day after his death, 10 of the top 15 albums on Billboard were Michael Jackson's. He sold 800,000 copies last week, twice the figure of 422,000 the week before. When retailers ran out of physical CDs, fans turned to the Internet: Individual song downloads stood at 6.2 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan and the L.A. Times. Verizon Wireless said half of the top 10 downloaded song's were performed by the Gloved One.

Estimations of any one writer's royalties are based on general wisdom, but that will have to do, since songwriters working at high levels might often negotiate their own deals. Each track is sliced a different way, with percentages deducted from percentages between publishers and writers, distributors and producers, but a reasonable estimate that many observers make is that songwriters make about 8¢ each time a typical song is performed publicly on the radio.

It's hard to put a firm royalty number on any one Jackson song because stations are playing so many, but Entertainment Weekly reported that for the last week of June, incidence of his songs had soared 1,735%.

Newcomers without strong inroads into the pop world usually fetch about 10% of the royalty fee, but if you're a big player, like U2's Bono, you can negotiate up to 25%.

If a writer supplied work on more than one track, as many Jackson collaborators did, you can multiply the figure by however many songs they wrote for a given album, split between co-writers for that track.

MJ wrote, or most often co-wrote, many of his own songs, so his share will go back to his estate -- say goodbye to that reported $400 million debt. Then consider the song list for Dangerous. You'll see a bunch of other names listed, including Teddy Riley, Glen Ballard, and Bill Bottrell. You may not know those names, but because Jackson worked with them to create the album, they'll get a cut, too.

Look at "Gone Too Soon." The cut, originally dedicated to young AIDS victim Ryan White, stands out as the only song on Dangerous that wasn't co-written by Jackson or one of his team. When it was chosen for inclusion on the album, which sold more than 32 million copies since its release in 1991, it must have been like winning the lottery for its writers. But when it was movingly re-appropriated by Usher at MJ's Staples Center tribute, it was like winning the Megaball. (It's worth noting, too, that by singing it on TV and radios around the world, Usher was putting a little more cash into the Jackson piggy bank. You're welcome, Paris, Prince Michael, and Blanket.)

Its composer, Larry Grossman, is better known as a Broadway writer whose biggest hit was the Peanuts musical Snoopy, but who also wrote for "The Muppet Show" and also for several short-lived shows such as A Doll's Life, Minnie's Boys, and Grind.

"Gone too Soon," co-written with lyricist and fellow TV vet Buzz Kohan, is in essence a show tune that was given a pop gloss and released to the world. Given Jackson's untimely death, it's become the anthem for his passing; the "Candle in the Wind" for the begloved royalty. Except this time, no one had to change a word to fit the occassion.

Even though Grossman and Kohan only wrote one Jackson song, it happened to be a particular bonanza.

For songwriting, profits are in the aggregate. Those pennies add up fast. If radio and TV are pumping out wall-to-wall Off the Wall, as has been the rare case these past two weeks, songwriters start watching their royalties scream ever higher.

For a lucky few, there's been a real golden lining in that one glove.
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