One of pop's most reflective moments came in 2001 with "Pop," when Justin Timberlake and his band of 'N Sync bros asked:
Do you ever wonder why (Why)?
This music gets you high (gets you high)?
That's a valid question. Many pundits, bloggers and even members of academia have done their best to provide an answer, but I'd like to throw one more theory onto the pile: There's a select group of 'super songwriters' quietly pulling the industry's strings.
The curious case of Bonnie McKee
One of the most prominent pop songwriters is Bonnie McKee. The redhead is responsible for singles released by the likes of Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Ke$ha. Rolling Stone has named her music's "Best Secret Weapon," and she's behind some of the most popular songs of the past half-decade. Take a look at this medley of her work:
McKee is the mastermind behind most of Katy Perry's biggest hits with Vivendi's (NASDAQOTH:VIVHY) Capitol Records, including "Part of Me," "Wide Awake," and "Roar."
Estimates of the songwriter's net worth vary wildly, but we can make a solid estimate. Her nine No. 1 singles have sold close to 30 million copies alone, conservatively worth around $50 million. Assuming her take is somewhere around the 30% of sales that most songwriters receive, that's $15 million. This doesn't include royalties for radio airplay, which is likely at least another $10 million for McKee, using the same 30% number. And these figures don't even include her other non No. 1 songs, which are impossible to estimate.
She's not the only one
Max Martin is another, better known 'super songwriter.' The man is responsible for many of the Backstreet Boys' biggest songs with Sony's (NYSE:SNE) RCA, Jive, and Legacy labels, including "Quit Playing Games With My Heart" and "I Want It That Way." Martin has also written for Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, Pink and you guessed it, Katy Perry.
For his efforts, Martin has accumulated a net worth of $250 million, according to celebritynetworth.com. Others songwriters that fit this mold include Lukasz Gottwald, otherwise known as 'Dr. Luke,' and Dag Volle. Both Gottwald and Volle have worked with a similar staple of artists as Martin and McKee.
The economic trade-off
Clearly, it pays to be a pop songwriter. Due to the sheer economics of most revenue-sharing agreements, even just one massive hit could make you a millionaire. While guys like Max Martin and Dr. Luke haven't tried to release songs under their own names, Bonnie McKee has. Why haven't you heard of her originals?
As seen in the video above, she's a talented singer. But most of her best stuff may have been given away. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, McKee describes the thought process behind parting with her favorite song:
Teenage Dream. That's a title I'd had bouncing around in my head for years that I had been holding onto for myself… So that was tough one to give up… But at that moment I didn't have hot water, I didn't have a cell phone, I didn't have a car. So it was now or never.
The latest single released under her name, meanwhile, was the flirty, playful "American Girl."
The song peaked at 87 on the US Billboard Hot 100 earlier this year, and failed to generate the summer-themed buzz it was designed to. It's easy to second-guess McKee's decision to give up her catchiest songs, but as she points out, it gave her a way to generate significant, fairly immediate income. Herein lies the economic trade-off that explains the songwriter's decision to delay her own stardom.
What does the future hold?
Don't mistake this choice as something that's permanent, though. McKee has a new album slated for release next year with Sony's Epic Records, and she has also implied she's willing to keep more of her best songs from now on.
Going forward, it's quite possible that more Hollywood stargazers with both singing and songwriting chops will go the Bonnie McKee route, rather than follow their own aspirations right away. As she points out, the basic amenities are important, and it's tough to ignore the dollar signs.
I'd also argue that McKee's fortune and A-list network give her a better chance to go mainstream than her younger, less plugged-in peers. Talent and ability are nice, but connections? That's what usually makes the difference.
So a message to all wannabe pop stars out there: Imitating icons like Michael Jackson and Britney Spears is smart, but learning how to become the next Max Martin or Dr. Luke is downright genius. That's what Bonnie McKee did, and she has a very bright future in store.
Fool contributor Jake Mann has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.