To see what Duncombe's talking about, let's compare what a star such as Timberlake made in sales with the earnings from a chart-topping disc of the past -- say, from the spring of 1993; more specifically, the Clive Davis-produced, Whitney Houston-featuring soundtrack for The Bodyguard. It's an apt comparison. The 20/20 Experience is a first-line earner for the American corporate music machine as The Bodyguard was back in the '90s. And earn it did. The Bodyguard was the first album to sell more than 1 million copies in a week, says the Recording Industry Association of America. Depending on who you believe, it moved anywhere from about 28 million to 45 million copies worldwide. Estimate a median-value 36 million units moved at a $15 purchase price and let's call it roughly $540 million in global album revenues.
Now comes the tantalizing question: What's JT's actual cut of the The 20/20 Experience action? That's like asking how Google ( GOOG) searches the Web or how FICO calculates your credit score. I literally got mocked by industry insiders when I tried to find out. But in this Internet age, there are no secrets. Anybody can put together a reasonable guess. The New Economics of the Music Industry. He put artist royalty rates in the 12% to 20% range. But Donald Passman, a longtime industry lawyer, in his book All You Need to Know About the Music Business pointed out that the artist pays all his expenses out of that cut, including managers, lawyers, accountants, marketing and travel. Cord Jefferson, on the African-American news and culture website The Root, estimates that, after backing out all said costs, artists -- even major ones such as Timberlake -- actually take home just 2.34% of every record-dollar sold. Using the iTunes price of $13 for the 10 songs in The 20/20 Experience, assuming 2 million discs sold, that's $26 million in top-line sales. Assuming a 3.5% cut, which could be high considering promotion costs, JT's net take-home year-to-date on the album is probably well less than $1 million. Or what Whitney Houston probably made in less than two weeks! Even worse, according to SoundScan, JT's disc was the only album that sold more than 1 million this year -- meaning Timberlake's take is the absolute tip of the music industry-earning iceberg. After that, the industry's biggest stars -- including Mumford & Sons, Bruno Mars and Blake Shelton -- make much, much less. It's what Warhol forgot to mention about 15 minutes of fame in these digital days: Being a "superstar" means learning to get by with less.