The Digital Skeptic: Justin Timberlake Is Just Getting By

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Topping the pop charts for the past six months is one thing. But making any money at it, that's another. Just ask Justin Timberlake.

Right before the Fourth of July holiday, Billboard.com went wide with fresh Nielsen SoundScan album sales numbers. Not surprisingly, for the first half of 2013 Timberlake led the industry with his The 20/20 Experience disc, which moved a solid-sounding 2 million units so far this year.

It's no secret how JT did it. The man sang, danced and acted with a Schwarzenegger-on-steroids work ethic. Remember how he played both host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live back in March? And he did not one, but five nights as Jimmy Fallon's co-host. Then, let's see ... there was the round-the-clock free performances at SXSW in Austin followed by more appearances on Leno, MTV and Fox. The grind of what of what it took to actually guilt today's lazy, thieving music consumer into paying real money for a real record is all perfectly documented on justintimberlake.com.

But investors should take note that, in spite of all the hustle, if this album's first few months on the market is any indication, being a musical star these days is not the living it used to be.

"Timberlake is just doing it to get the word out," said Brandon Duncombe, the smartest industry-savvy person I know. Duncombe co-owns EnP Music Group, a Miami recording and talent management firm. "He's not going to be making much money on this record. He's got his film career."

Never touching Whitney
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.

Sales Mr. Timberlake will never, ever touch.

In its debut week, The 20/20 Experience did a Whitney-like 980,000 in disc sales. But by week four, music industry news service Digital Music News said just 97,696 units moved. It's not just that it was a 89.9% drop in less than 30 days. Houston's sales for "The Bodyguard" are simply out of reach.

Album sales just "isn't a high that lasts very long anymore," wrote Digital Music News' Paul Resnikoff.

Not the living it used to be
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.

Steve Knopper did an oft-cited Rolling Stone piece in 2011 called 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.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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