Over the past three years, Garth Brooks took back country's throne, selling more than 6 million tickets on his North American tour with wife Trisha Yearwood and topping back-to-back-to-back lists of the genre’s highest-paid acts. But this year, his $45.5 million haul is only good for the No. 2 spot—another singer has seized country’s cash crown.
Luke Bryan pulled in $52 million, thanks largely to a slew of shows on his worldwide headlining tour where he grossed seven figures nightly. Bryan also cashed in at his new job as a judge on American Idol and through endorsements with the likes of Chevrolet. After second-ranked Brooks, Kenny Chesney rounds out the top three with $37 million, mostly from his Trip Around the Sun Tour, as well as his own Blue Chair Rum and an endorsement deal with Corona.
Bryan is at the vanguard of a new generation of country stars who’ve traded cowboy hats for baseball caps and, in many cases, steel guitar for rock riffs. They're also exploring nontraditional ways to monetize their musical success: Blake Shelton (No. 5, $28 million) Florida Georgia Line (No. 6, $27 million) and Bryan have all recently opened bars in Nashville.
“Twenty years ago, if you’d told me I would have a bar in downtown Nashville, I would have said, ‘Yeah, right,’” Aldean said to Forbes contributor Brittany Hodak. “It’s crazy. But it’s cool for fans. They can go have a drink at my place, see memorabilia from the FGL guys, hang at Blake’s bar. Nashville is booming as a city, and it’s fun to see the changes happening.”
The same can be said for country music more broadly, at least in terms of how it stacks up against other genres. The top ten acts earned $304.5 million over the past year, nearly 20% more than the ten highest-paid DJs, who pulled in $260 million during that span.
At the same time, the $304.5 million tally by country’s top ten marks a dip of about 20% from last year’s total, though it may be more a matter of tour schedules—Brooks’ epic excursion winding down and Dolly Parton (No. 10, $19 million) playing far fewer shows this year—than an indication of a country calamity.
The genre still has plenty of work to do when it comes to diversity: Parton is the only lady on the list. The septuagenarian cash queen of country easily outearned scores of men half her age on the strength of income from her Dollywood theme park and dinner theater establishments. A savvy businesswoman, she is also said to own her own music publishing and master recordings.
Country’s record of inclusion looks a tad better beyond the top ten, where stars who earned double-digit millions but didn’t quite crack our list include Faith Hill and Miranda Lambert, in addition to usual male suspects like Keith Urban and Tim McGraw.
To formulate our list, we look at touring numbers from Pollstar, Bandsintown and Songkick, as well as record sales data from Nielsen, while performing independent research on outside business ventures and endorsement deals. Our estimates represent pretax income from June 1, 2017 through June 1, 2018; fees for managers, agents and lawyers are not deducted.
Country’s top-earning acts are increasingly taking an active role in formulating their own moneymaking strategies, as the efforts by the likes of Aldean, Shelton and Florida Georgia Line show. But for most, music still comes first.
“It’s no secret to anyone that I’m very involved in my business,” Brooks once told Forbes. “I know enough just to be dangerous ... [but] my job is the fun.”