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The Most Successful Musicians: Past and Present

Try to think of the most successful musician you've ever heard of. Tough, right? Too many names come to mind, and it's impossible to remember them all. Not to mention, success can be a rather subjective element. Artists from your favorite genre will come to mind first, while you may completely forget about some of the more famous artists throughout history that you never really listened to.

Further complicating matters is the various revenue streams many artists generate. Most aren't limited to sales of albums; instead, they earn money through downloaded mp3s, concert sales, retail memorabilia and other gigs, such as producing and hosting. Modern artists take on gigs such as judging shows like American Idol and X Factor, and some earn major revenues for doing so.

Mariah Carey, for instance, will replace Jennifer Lopez as American Idol judge and will become the highest-paid judge in reality TV, banking a cool $18 million for one year. Second in line to this feat are Jennifer Lopez who earned $15 million in the same position and Britney Spears, who also earns $15 million as a judge on X Factor. Jennifer Lopez, however, tops the Forbes 2012 list of The World's Most Powerful Celebrities.

Richest Musicians in History

Editors live at Roskilde Festival 2006. Image by Stig Nygaard via Fotocommunity.

MTV Hive lists Bono as the richest rock star in history with a net worth of $1 billion. Sir Paul McCartney takes the second position with a net worth of $800 million. Male artists dominate this chart, and most have been around for a few decades; Sir Elton John, Mick Jagger, Sting and Keith Richards all claim spots among the top ten richest musicians.

But women aren't totally left out of this picture: Madonna and Mariah Carey earn the third and fourth spots in terms of net worth, with $650 million and $500 million, respectively. And younger male artists make their presence known as well: Jay-Z and Sean “Diddy” Combs claim their rightful positions. Interestingly, both of the younger male artists that make this list are in the rap genre, but not surprisingly, both have made a significant portion of their cash from producing other artists. Also interesting to note is that both Diddy and Jay-Z have interests in clothing lines.

Most Successful Young Musicians

To be fair, despite the overwhelming popularity of some younger musicians such as Justin Bieber, these younger artists haven't had time to accumulate the vast amounts of wealth as the likes of Bono. So who tops the list in terms of the up-and-coming musicians?

Forbes named the Top Ten Highest-Paid Celebrities Under 30 in May of 2012, and not surprisingly, most of these ten celebrities are musicians. Unlike the older generation of artists, women dominate this crew. Taylor Swift earns the number-one spot, raking in an estimated $57 million between May 2011 and May 2012. Rihanna also earns a spot on this list with earnings of $53 million in the same timeframe. Lady Gaga ($52 million) and Katy Perry ($45 million) also make it to the top five.

Justin Bieber is the only young male artist earning a spot in the top five, although he takes a close second to Taylor Swift with $55 million in earnings between May 2011 and May 2012.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is predominantly comprised of male artists, with females making up only about 14 percent of the total inductees. As of December 2011, the Hall of Fame had a total of 296 inductees, with 45 being women or having women members.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducts noteworthy artists yearly.

But of the 15 2013 nominees, there are a few women represented in the group, such as Donna Summer, The Marvelettes, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Heart, which includes two female members. Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson also hold another esteemed title as the first women to ever front a rock band. The Marvelettes were originally comprised of four talented women, and the group is well-known for the famous track, “Please Mr. Postman,” which featured Marvin Gaye on the drums.

Other nominees for the 2013 induction ceremony include:

  • The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
  • Chic
  • Deep Purple
  • Albert King
  • Kraftwerk
  • The Meters
  • Randy Newman
  • Procol Harum
  • N.W.A
  • Public Enemy
  • Rush

You won't find newer artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That's because performers aren't eligible for induction until the 25th anniversary of the release of their first record. But the likes of Pink Floyd (inducted in 1996), The Grateful Dead (1994), The Police (2003), Elvis Presley (1986), Ricky Nelson (1986), and Prince (2004) have all earned accolades as Hall of Fame-ers.

In 2012, there were 17 new members inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A nominating committee selects each year's nominees, and winners are chosen based on the results of a voting process including 600 artists, historians and other members of the music industry. The nominating committee consists of about 30 members, many of whom have served in the role for many years, but slight changes to the committee may take place between years.

The 2012 Inductees include:

Statue of Elvis at Kobe Harborland. Image via

  • The Beastie Boys
  • Guns ‘N Roses (a heavily criticized induction)
  • The Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Laura Nyro
  • Freddie King
  • Donovan
  • The Comets
  • The Blue Caps
  • The Crickets
  • Tom Dowd
  • The Famous Flames
  • Glyn Johns
  • Don Kirshner
  • Cosimo Matassa
  • The Midnighters
  • The Miracles
  • The Small Faces/Faces

Country Music Hall of Fame

The Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961, and eligibility criteria are similar to that of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Performers are eligible 20 years after achieving national prominence in the Modern Era category and 45 years after doing the same in the Veterans Era category.

Like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, most of the Country Music Hall of Fame inductees are male. As of 2011, there were 115 members, of which, 15 are women or groups that include women.

To be eligible for the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013, for instance, an artist would have had to become famous between the years of 1968 and 1993. (Yes, 1993. That's how quickly 20 years can go by.) CMT News offers up a short list of artists whom meet this eligibility criteria for 2013 and are still living:

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Alan Jackson
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • John Denver
  • Charlie Rich

The Country Music Hall of Fame is located in Nashville, TN.

These four country music superstars are also all winners of the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award. And if you're paying attention, you'll notice they're also all male. John Denver and Charlie Rich take a slightly different approach to the country genre, but strict adherence isn't necessarily a prerequisite. Instead, the rules state that nominees must have made an “outstanding contribution,” to the genre, although that clause is left open to interpretation.

Not to worry. There are a few others who could find themselves on the list this year, including some female performers:

  • Toby Keith, whose breakout hit “Should've Been a Cowboy” entered the scene in 1993.
  • Martina McBride, with her breakout “My Baby Loves Me,” which also hit the Top 10.
  • Faith Hill, with her breakout hit, “Wild One,” which hit number one on the charts.

There are also a few others who could be nominated in the Modern Era category for 2013. Although they hail from a few years prior to the artists above, there are some well-known chart-toppers here:

Randy Travis is a country music legend.

  • Crystal Gayle
  • The Judds
  • Randy Travis
  • Clint Black
  • Mickey Gilley
  • Tanya Tucker

What about the Veterans Era category? These country music artists must have earned their fame prior to 1968 to qualify for induction in 2013. Here are a few country entertainers who could earn this accolade in the next few years:

  • Kenny Rogers and former CMA entertainer of the year
  • Hank Williams Jr., a former CMA Entertainer of the Year
  • Lynn Anderson
  • Bobby Bare
  • Jerry Lee Lewis

The above artists are all still living, but there are a few now-deceased musicians who will also qualify soon:

  • Johnny Horton
  • Gram Parsons, who toured and recorded with the Byrds in 1968
  • Dottie West

Grammy Award Winners

There are more female Grammy Award winners than members of either the Rock and Roll or Country Music Halls of Fame. This is mostly due to the fact that categories were historically separated out to name the best male and female performers in pop, R&B and country music. In other words, a male winner and a female winner were selected in each of those categories.

However, the Grammy Awards made a bold move in 2011 to slim down the total awards from 109 to 78, including consolidating the best performer categories. Either a male or female performer will walk away with a Grammy Award in 2012 for each genre, but not both. We won't know how this will skew the trends for at least a few years.

Here are a few noteworthy Grammy record-holders:

U2 has won more Grammy Awards than any other band. Image by klem@s via Flickr.

  • Alison Krauss (who collaborates with Union Station) holds the record for the most Grammys won by a female artist, with 27 awards. Aretha Franklin is second with 18 Grammys, and Beyonce rounds out the top three with 16 Grammy Award wins.
  • The most Grammys won by a male artist title goes to a lesser-known musician, Georg Solti, who has won 31 awards. Quincy Jones has won 27 Grammys, and Pierre Boulez rounds out the top three with 26 awards.
  • U2 has won the most Grammys as a group, with 22 Grammys. Tied for second place are the Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss and Union Station, each of whom has won a total of 13 awards. The Foo Fighters take third place with a total of 11 Grammys.

Geographical Trends among Musicians

It's pretty easy to break down the most successful musicians by age and gender, but when it comes to geography, the waters become a bit more muddled. That's because aspiring musicians tend to gravitate to locations where they'll be able to make their marks more easily, such as Los Angeles, Nashville or even New York City.

Beverly Hills is home to Rodeo Drive--and more musicians per capita than any other U.S. city. Image by Omar A. via Flickr.

Music Machinery ranks the top cities producing the most musical artists. Topping the list, surprisingly, isn't Los Angeles – but the list is ranked according to the number of musicians per 1,000 in habitants. So while L.A. is number 11 on the list with 1.24 artists per 1,000 inhabitants, the city boasts 4,789 musicians total. The sheer population size (3,877,129) simply means musicians don't make up as big a proportion of the overall population as other cities.

Earning the number one position in terms of the musician to population ratio is Beverly Hills, California, which is home to 3.14 artists per every 1,000 residents. There are a total of 111 musicians residing in the city per Music Machinery's data, and a total population of 35,355. So while Beverly Hills is a much less-populated city, the concentration of musicians who live there is higher.

San Francisco is also home to a significant number of musicians. A total of 1,651 artists live among a population of 732,072. For every `1,000 residents, there are 2.26 musicians. Nashville rounds out the top three most musician-saturated cities, with a population of 530,852; 894 of those Nashville residents are musical artists. That means there are about 1.68 musicians for every 1,000 people who call Nashville home.

Other cities earning a spot in the top 10 most musician-populated cities include:

  • Boston, MA (936 musicians, 571,281 total population, 1.64 per 1,000)
  • Atlanta, GA (651 musicians, 422,908 total population, 1.54 per 1,000)
  • Charlottesville, VA (53 musicians, 34,703 total population, 1.53 per 1,000)
  • Washington, DC (817 musicians, 552,433 total population, 1.48 per 1,000)
  • Minneapolis, MN (513 musicians, 367,773 total population, 1.39 per 1,000)
  • Portland, OR (740 musicians, 540,513 total population, 1.37 per 1,000)
  • Burlington, VT (51 musicians, 38,601total population, 1.32 per 1,000)

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum are located in Cleveland, home of the first-ever rock and roll concert.

Another interesting geographical quirk to note is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is located in Cleveland, Ohio, while the Country Music Hall of Fame is located in Nashville, where one would expect. Cleveland isn't exactly a hotbed of musical prowess; it doesn't even earn a spot on Music Machinery's list of musician-heavy cities. Cleveland was chosen over cities like Memphis (home of Sun Studios and Stax Records), Detroit (home of Motown Records), Cincinnati (home of King Records) and New York City, primarily because it was home to the first rock-and-roll concert and because Cleveland-based disc jockey Alan Freed is widely credited for coining both the genre and the term “rock and roll”.

There are dozens of highly successful musicians, both old and young. Young stars have accumulated millions of dollars in wealth, but most haven't been around long enough to earn accolades such as induction into the Rock and Roll or Country Music Hall of Fame. And it doesn't take a certain background to guarantee success, as highly successful musicians span across a variety of genres and hail from all around the world.

It could be said that the best definition of success as a musician is not only wealth, but longevity and how well one connects with his fans. Many of today's artists will be largely forgotten in a few years, with little hope of ever becoming a Hall of Fame inductee.