by Alex Cosper (7/19/13)
Measuring the best selling songs of all time is not the same as measuring the best selling recordings of all time, since a song can be more than a recording and not all recordings are songs. A song, for example, can sell sheet music or be collect royalties from live performances. While the RIAA tracks shipment units to retail for recordings, compilation of revenues collected for songs is done by performance rights organizations such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. A popular song that is covered by many artists, such as the Beatles' hit "Yesterday," will likely earn much more revenue than a song that is a hit by only one artist.
It is very difficult to track all the sales of every song due to the cumulative nature of classic hits that are covered and performed over many years. Below are some of the highest royalty earning songs in history. Song titles are listed, followed by songwriters. These songs were listed in a BBC Four documentary called "The Richest Songs In The World." The songs are not ranked in the exact same order, as different lists reflect different rankings. Number one is "Happy Birthday" due to being performed so often. The song was originally written in 1893 and has earned about $50 million while "White Christmas" was written in 1940 and has earned about $36 million, as of 2013.
Happy Birthday by Patty and Mildred J. Hill (purchased by Warner Chappel in 1990)
White Christmas by Irving Berlin
You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Specter
Yesterday credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney (but solely written by McCartney)
Unchained Melody by Alex North and Hy Zaret
Stand By Me by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Santa Claus is Coming To Town by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie
Every Breath You Take by Sting
Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees
The Christmas Song by Mel Torme
Part of what has helped most of these songs was their appearances in motion pictures. Certain Christmas songs sell well because they come back every December and get a lot of public play in malls. Songs can also earn money from appearing in TV and radio commercials, especially on a national level.
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