When nearly seven decades of hard work and record sales translate into at best a quarter of Taylor Swift’s career earnings, the generational scale is broken.
Over the years we’ve seen the pattern play out again and again. A star who worked well into traditional retirement age and was beloved by generations dies with career earnings that wouldn’t even float a typical CEO a year.
Now it’s Aretha Franklin’s turn. The Queen of Soul sold 75 million records and is credited as a songwriter on hundreds of albums by other people.
She started singing professionally in 1960 at age 16. If not for her recent death from pancreatic cancer, odds are high she’d still be playing the occasional live show.
And yet even the most inflated estimates of her career earnings top out at $80 million. Put that in context, Taylor Swift started at roughly the same age, has been working one fifth as long and the same math suggests she’s worth north of $300 million.
Or take any middle-market pharmaceutical company CEO. They make around $15 million a year. There are reasonable odds the Queen of Soul had roughly much left behind after her long career.
Either way, they can eclipse her entire career compensation in half a decade. A top-paid hedge fund manager can do it in two weeks.
It isn’t fair or unfair that a talent who was an icon to millions for so long doesn’t even rate on modern lists of the richest people in her own industry, let alone the world at large. It’s just the way wealth has flowed over long periods of time.
That’s a lesson for anyone who uses money to benchmark their success against others. Even if you’re chasing the biggest dollar signs, they won’t always line up with work, brainpower or talent.
But for everyone else, beyond a certain level of security and comfort, it doesn’t really matter. They’re all just abstract numbers in the end.
Born in the wrong time
Top stars in Aretha’s imperial period just didn’t earn as much as they do now. Management was often aggressive and took a huge share of every dollar that came in from album sales, concerts, media appearances, you name it.
Talent management was the career to pursue if you wanted the big money. Being the talent was where you went if you were happy to get a bigger piece of your overall compensation in applause.
Aretha complicated things by letting her husband manage her early career. When they split, he took a lot of her lifetime earnings with him. Whether she got cheated or not, it was the way the industry was structured at the time.
Look at a near contemporary like Elvis, who had it relatively easy in the industry and was still worth only $5 million when he died in the late 1970s. Even adjusted for inflation, all those movies, the Las Vegas residency and all the hits weighed in at under 1/10 Taylor Swift’s net worth so far.
The Colonel got the rich cut. Translate those dynamics from King to Queen and Aretha was extremely well compensated for her time and place, with society as a whole not stacked in her favor.
A few generations of innovation have changed the industry. Big acts have gotten bigger, and with the gross revenue rising management can accept a smaller percentage and still feel rich. Fame itself has become a commodity that Aretha — as the Queen of Advertising as well as Soul — could never have appreciated even in her heyday promoting soda and coffee on TV.
Old revenue sources never really got much bigger than they were in the 1960s. Some, like selling the actual music, cratered and have yet to revive.
Modern stars like Taylor Swift thrive because they run their own tours and rake in ticket income instead of record sales. And they own their own publishing in order to maximize their percentage on every song they do sell.
The modern tour machine is expensive to run but as people from the Rolling Stones to the Jackson 5 have learned, it’s the way to generate the biggest returns on fame.
Aretha toured a lot, but she let other people own a lot of the behind-the-scenes interest and they took the big profit. She earned a paycheck. In a sense, it was their tour, not hers.
And while she wrote plenty of songs, she recorded a lot of material from other people that made them a lot of money. Whatever your opinion on Taylor Swift’s talent happens to be, she doesn’t share the credit or the royalties.
Taylor Swift also loves the money for its own sake. She rolls the revenue into aircraft leasing and real estate, effectively becoming a vertically integrated financial empire. Aretha could’ve gone that magnate route, but it really wasn’t her style.
That’s okay. She died with money on the books, her four kids will inherit enough that they don’t need to worry and people loved her. Even if she never really retired, she worked when she wanted to.
The posthumous comparison
On the other hand, life is all about change. We earn and we spend, we work and we play. Like a lot of stars in her generation, Aretha’s divorces cost her a whole lot of the money she made in her prime years.
You can’t invest alimony you’re paying out. Instead, you need to keep working for the ex-spouse.
This may be in the background of why Taylor Swift hasn’t gotten married. Even with the tightest prenuptial contracts and trusts wrapped around her money, the wrong choice could cost her hundreds of millions of dollars.
Other stars make other choices, good and bad. Most of them even out in the end. Aretha probably gave staggering amounts to charity and did it in the most tax-efficient way her accountants could find. That’s her choice.
But the end is no longer final in today’s media ecosystem. Her intellectual heirs are now free to run her brand and her body of work as a true business, divorced from the woman who built it.
They’ll maximize for the highest return. The family and any institutional presence will benefit from that cash flow. The managers themselves will also draw a healthy paycheck.
The legacy becomes their business and the life becomes a raw commodity. Think of Elvis, Michael Jackson, David Bowie. All active during a slice of Aretha’s glory years, all generating a whole lot more now than they did when they were alive.
Dead, Michael Jackson makes money like a world-class hedge fund. He can’t enjoy it now but the compensation lines up a lot better than it did when he was alive and not making the best career choices.
Aretha may be a similar story. Record sales will spike. Unreleased material will get monetized. The image, name and authorization will generate merchandising and royalty income. The brand can work as hard as it can, forever.
The decisions aren’t hers any more. Neither are the comparisons. Aretha in the grave may yet leave Taylor Swift in the dust, one way or another.