Ducking through a crowd of tourists at Rockefeller Center, the singer Cee Lo Green took a breather during rehearsals for NBC’s annual tree-lighting concert on Nov. 30. But between a shopping detour at Swarovski Crystal and last-minute talks with the show’s producer, there wasn’t much time to rest.
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It’s a pace that Cee Lo, as he is also known, is accustomed to. In the last year, he has won a Grammy Award for a song that became a blockbuster hit despite its unprintable title (officially bowdlerized as “Forget You”), become a celebrity judge on NBC’s talent show “The Voice” and, through a calculated media blitz orchestrated by his managers, broken through as a face of mainstream pop culture after nearly two decades as a cult figure.
To sustain his success, Cee Lo has become one of the hardest-working stars in pop. In the days around the tree-lighting schedule he logged about 20,000 miles taping television shows, recording an album and making personal appearances across the United States and in Britain. One day last spring he managed a promotional trifecta, performing in New York in the morning, Alabama in the afternoon and Las Vegas at night.
“I’m still just a working-class artist, basically,” Cee Lo said of his schedule, as he waited backstage at Rockefeller Center for some hot tea to soothe his well-traveled vocal cords.
Cee Lo — a cannonball-shaped man devoted to the Liberace and Elton John school of showmanship — will earn about $20 million this year. Record sales represent the smallest slice of the revenue pie, according to Larry Mestel, the chief executive of Cee Lo’s management company, Primary Wave Music. The collapse in record sales over the last decade has decimated the bottom line, and a hit song alone is no longer enough to bring in superstar wealth.
So even musicians with multiplatinum success have started looking elsewhere for income, especially to increased touring and the kind of commercial deals that result in Miracle Whip product placement in Lady Gaga videos and Taylor Swift’s performing at a JetBlue airport terminal.
A look at the numbers shows how the economics of music stardom have changed. Born Thomas Callaway, Cee Lo first struck gold in 2005 as producer and co-writer of the Pussycat Dolls’ hit “Don’t Cha”; the next year Gnarls Barkley, his duo with the producer Danger Mouse, reached No. 1 around the world with “Crazy.”
Those hits brought Cee Lo an industry perch but little mainstream name recognition. The pattern might have continued with his third solo album, “The Lady Killer,” which had a modest opening at No. 9 when released late last year by Elektra. By then, however, “Forget You” had already snowballed from an online novelty hit into a pop culture phenomenon, with Gwyneth Paltrow singing it on “Glee.”
“Forget You,” released in August 2010, reached No. 2 and has sold 5.3 million downloads in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it the 12th most downloaded track of all time. (By comparison, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” the top song of 2011, has sold 5.7 million.)
But today even extraordinary sales numbers like those translate to limited financial success.
A chart-topping single could once be counted on to drive big sales of full albums, which bring in greater royalties. But the “unbundling” of albums in the age of iTunes — the loss of album sales at $10 or $15 when consumers can buy a single song for about $1 — has contributed to a 58 percent reduction in album sales since 2000. Despite the success of “Forget You,” “The Lady Killer” has sold only about 450,000 copies in the United States.
“How much do you make on five million singles?” Mr. Mestel asked. “It’s not $5 million. Apple takes a piece of it, the record company takes a piece of it, the producer takes a piece of it, and then Cee Lo gets a piece of it as the artist.”
A recording contract for an act like Cee Lo would typically offer a net royalty of about 15 percent, according to several music executives. That means that for a $1.29 download from iTunes, after Apple takes its standard 30 percent fee, the artist would be paid 13 or 14 cents; for five million downloads, that amounts to about $650,000. As one of five writers of the song, Cee Lo would also make about $45,000 in publishing royalties on those downloads.
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