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Ryan Adams by the numbers: Money, money, money in the bank

Ryan Adams has had a very fine career by the numbers as well as by the music, which is something that entered into the “Losering” story. While I was working on the book, I called upon a friend who worked at a music-business establishment with a subscription to Nielsen Soundscan, the service that tracks music sales in the U.S. He provided album-sales figures for Ryan’s catalog, both solo and with Whiskeytown, which was very useful data to have. While it would be unwise to put all the precise to-the-last-digit numbers for every album here (Soundscan is a subscription service, after all), Ryan’s sales figures through January 2012 can be summarized thusly:

Whiskeytown — 424,103 total sales. In terms of individual titles, the range was from just over 150,000 copies of the original 1997 version of Strangers Almanac down to just under 3,000 copies of the original 1996 independent-label version of Faithless Street. Whiskeytown’s 2001 swan song Pneumonia and the 1998 Outpost Records reissue of Faithless Street were both at over 100,000 copies.

Ryan Adams solo — 2,362,984 total sales, topped by 2001’s Gold at about 425,000 (a figure you’ll notice is greater than the entire Whiskeytown catalog combined) and followed by 2000’s Heartbreaker at about 309,000 and 2007’s Easy Tiger at just over 250,000. Of the rest, only 2003’s Rock N Roll was at more than 200,000 — although 2005’s Cold Roses was close. And bringing up the rear: 2005’s 29 at about 96,000, and 2010’s III/IV at just under 49,000.

NetWorthAdd it up, and it comes to almost 2.8 million in total U.S. album sales (which is probably at least in the neighborhood of 3 million by now, since that was 16 months ago). Nothing to rival U2, but a very healthy sum nevertheless. And while Whiskeytown didn’t make Ryan rich, his ensuing solo career certainly has. How rich? Well, according to the mavens at CelebrityNetWorth.com, Ryan’s estimated net worth is $24 million — a sum that obviously includes revenue from more than just domestic record sales, such as touring, Tim McGraw’s country-hit cover of “When The Stars Go Blue” and all the weird places “Come Pick Me Up” has appeared over the years.

(UPDATE, 3/9/16: Probably as a result of Ryan’s divorce from Mandy Moore, CelebrityNetWorth.com has halved its estimate of his net worth — from $24 million down to $12 million.)

I should note that I’m not sure how trustworthy that $24 million figure is. Not that I know anything about net worth of the rich and famous; but if I’d been asked to estimate Ryan’s fortune before seeing this, I probably would have guessed somewhere closer to the $9 million that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is said to be worth. And yet it’s just as possible that $24 million is a conservative estimate because CelebrityNetWorth.com’s summary of Ryan’s career is woefully out-of-date (not to mention sloppy). Here it is verbatim:

Ryan Adams is a North Carolina-born singer-songwriter, musician, and author with an estimated net worth of $24 million dollars. Originally recognized for his work with the alt-rock group, Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams left to pursue a solo career, and has since released five solo studio albums. He also performed with The Cardinals until 2009, when he decided to take a break from music. He is most widely recognized for his song, “New York, New York”.

(Note: This entry has since been updated, but the revised version at that link remains just as clue-impaired.)

Actually, “five solo studio albums” is less than half of what Ryan has released since Whiskeytown disbanded; he’s put out two albums (one a two-disc set) and appeared in a movie since that “break from music” ended; even though “New York, New York” got played on TV at Thursday night’s NFL draft (cha-ching!), I’d still say that “Come Pick Me Up,” “When the Stars Go Blue” and possibly even “Lucky Now” are all better-known by now; and while I’m at it, as descriptions go, “alt-rock group” is a pretty crappy one for Whiskeytown. At any rate, between Ryan’s bottom line and the $23 million that his singer-actress wife Mandy Moore is worth, it seems safe to say he’s not sweating next month’s electric bill.

So how does Ryan’s estimated net worth stack up with what other celebrities are worth, you ask? Well, it’s a fraction of the fortunes of old-school superstars who have been at it for 30 years or more, including Paul McCartney ($800 million), Madonna ($650 million), Dolly Parton ($450 million), Mick Jagger ($305 million), Bruce Springsteen ($200 million) and Robert Plant ($120 million).

But Ryan isn’t too far behind contemporaries like Jack White and Drake, who are both at $30 million. I was actually surprised that Adele didn’t come in higher than $45 million. The next level up is Justin Timberlake at $100 million and Usher at $110 million. Higher still is Foo Fighters main man Dave Grohl (managed, like Ryan, by John Silva) with $225 million, much of which originated from his early-1990s time in Nirvana; and hip-hop icon Jay-Z is in a class by himself with $500 million. Throw in his wife Beyonce’s $300 million, and that’s a household with some serious financial juice.

Returning to Ryan’s relatively modest end of the spectrum, I was a bit surprised at some of the artists he’s well ahead of, including Patti Smith ($15 million), Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas ($10 million) and “Call Me Maybe” hitmaker Carly Rae Jepsen (and if you’re wondering what that level of one-hit-wonder omnipresence is worth, $1 million is apparently the answer).

Narrow the field down to musicians from North Carolina, and about the only one ahead of Ryan is Ben Folds at $35 million (if you don’t count Massachusetts-born James Taylor, $60 million). Another interesting detail is just how far Ryan is ahead of all of North Carolina’s “American Idol” stars, a delegation led by Chris Daughtry at $8.5 million. Clay Aiken is next at $4 million, while Scotty McCreery, Kellie Pickler and Fantasia all come in at $1.5 million or less.

I think the lesson to be learned there is that “American Idol” is more likely to convey fame than fortune. But I still wouldn’t mind trying to scrape by on the bank account of anybody on this list.

ADDENDUM (2/5/15): Here’s more detail from a website called CelebrityGlory.com, although I wouldn’t put much stock in any of their figures. To cite just one questionable example, I’m not sure what they were smoking to have concluded that Ryan’s “1984” limited-edition seven-inch generated the suspiciously robust sum of $349,650.

SECOND ADDENDUM (12/9/15): According to divorce papers filed by Mandy Moore, Ryan earns $151,000 a month — which comes to more than $1.8 million a year, while she claims to be scraping by on “less than a quarter of that” (and is therefore asking for $37,000 a month in spousal support). Anyway, maybe he is worth $24 million…

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Going it alone

I was apprehensive about attempting a biography of Ryan for a number of reasons, one being that my opinions about his career fall well outside the mainstream narrative. That was why I’d never bothered with trying to sell a book about Ryan to the big New York publishing houses. Such a pitch would have boiled down to something like this:

Yeah, the Ryan Adams record that everybody seems to know and love — “Gold,” the album that broke him through to the masses, got the Grammy nominations, cemented his “Almost Famous” career arc and already inspired one not-so-great book about him — actually isn’t very good. In fact, that might be the least-interesting record he’s ever done. Everybody needs to go back and listen instead to the obscure records he was doing with Whiskeytown, which are far, far more compelling…

I didn’t want to be “That Guy,” the one whining about how a favorite artist was so much better before the proletariat caught on. Besides, coming from an unknown writer in Mayberry, that wasn’t going to fly. I’d already had one frustrating go-round with the book world over “Off The Record,” a novel I’d written and set in the music industry, centered around a crazy brilliant rock star whose fictional flamboyance was very much like Ryan’s.

“Rock novels are a tough sell” — I heard that over and over from agents and publishers, many of whom said nice things about “Off The Record,” and all of whom passed on it. Rather than leave it in the drawer, I eventually decided to put it out myself and it did okay. I sold enough books to break even, and Greil Marcus was kind enough to put it at No. 6 on his “Real Life Top 10” one week (an indescribably huge thrill, since he’s always been an idol of mine; I don’t think I slept for a week). But after the book industry’s response to “Off The Record,” I wasn’t in a hurry to put much effort into pitching another book that didn’t comfortably fit the standard pigeonholes.

Then, suddenly, someone did want me to write that Ryan book. My bluff was called, forcing me to confront my biggest cause for apprehension of all: I was pretty sure Ryan wouldn’t cooperate. I’d tried to interview him repeatedly during his post-Whiskeytown years; the answer had always been nyet, and no one would ever come out and say why. He and I had a break, but I didn’t know what it was over. Still don’t. I did hear mixed reports over a 2000 No Depression magazine feature I’d written, and I’d also written an unenthusiastic review of “Gold” when it came out. But neither of those seemed like enough to put us on the outs. It seemed like others had done worse without earning the cold shoulder.

The closest I ever got to an explanation was a 2002 phone call from his then-manager, who called me in an agitated state to basically tell me that “some people were saying some things.” He wouldn’t specify who or what, only that he and Ryan were disgruntled because I’d done…something. One thing he did specify was a Magnet magazine profile the previous fall, which painted Ryan in a less-than-flattering light. I was quoted in the story and I’d also given the writer some phone numbers to find other people he interviewed, which the manager seemed to believe represented a breach of ethics. I was confused and couldn’t understand why everyone was so upset, so I asked if I could talk to Ryan directly about it.

“I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” the manager said, laughing mirthlessly.

I didn’t get to talk to Ryan then, or ever. Ryan doesn’t seem to play in Raleigh anymore — except for a show in 2005, he hasn’t played his old hometown since 2000 — so I’ve periodically tried to get interviews for pieces I’ve written about some of his records. Nope. Naively, I hoped that enough time had gone by for this book to be different. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Part of my procrastinational busy work during 2010 involved sending backdoor messages to Ryan via mutual friends who were still in touch with him. That went nowhere. Finally, in December when it was coming on Christmas, it was time for the direct approach. I screwed up my courage and e-mailed Ryan’s manager. John Silva, a heavy hitter whose other clients include Beastie Boys, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Beck. I made it as neutral and straightforward as possible:

Mr. Silva — I wanted to get in touch about a project concerning Ryan Adams, which I hope he’ll be willing to participate in. University of Texas Press is starting up a “No Depression Biography Series,” and Ryan is to be one of the artists profiled. It has fallen to me to do the book. Below is some information about the series from the UT Press catalog.
 
Ryan and I have a long history going back to his days in Raleigh with Whiskeytown, although we’ve not spoken in years beyond a cordial e-mail exchange a few Christmases ago. But I’ve always been an admirer, from back in the day (http://archives.nodepression.com/1995/09/a-short-interviews-journey-into-hell/) up to the present (www.spin.com/reviews/ryan-adams-and-cardinals-iiiiv-pax-am).
 
My hope is that he’ll agree to be interviewed. The book will come out on a university press, so the focus is to be very much on the music. Beyond a bit of interview access over the next six months, this is a process that should demand very little of him.
 
Happy holidays and please do holler back,

David Menconi

That letter went unanswered, as did several followups. So I turned to someone I knew I could at least get on the phone, Josh Grier, Ryan’s lawyer and someone I’ve known for 20 years. Josh has some history in North Carolina, having studied at Duke University Law School before going on to run Dolphin Records in the 1980s. His client list is as impressive as John Silva’s, and he’s worked with a lot of North Carolina acts over the years. I was hoping for some help here. But when I asked him about Ryan being interviewed for the book, it was the same answer as always.

“I know about this, I’ve heard talk,” Josh said. “Ryan’s not going to participate.”

Why not? I asked

“He just doesn’t want to revisit that time,” Josh said, adding that Ryan’s memories of his time in Raleigh had grown “fuzzy.” And that was that. Josh and I talked for a while that day, the way we always did about bands and the music business and projects he was working on. But it was clear that interviewing Ryan to get his modern-day perspective on the past was not going to happen.

(ADDENDUM, 9/27/12: I have been told by a friend of Josh Grier’s that Josh remembers this conversation a bit differently. His memory of it is that he used the word “faded” rather than “fuzzy” in describing Ryan’s memories. I’m not sure that makes a huge difference, but said friend seemed to think it was important. Anyway…so noted.)

By the time I hung up the phone, I was overcome with depression and dread. That was the early spring of 2011, and I’d accomplished little beyond some interviews with secondary characters. My Sept. 1 deadline loomed not much more than six months off, and I had to write a 50,000-word manuscript about someone I hadn’t interviewed in more than a decade. New interviews with Ryan could have simplified the process by suggesting possible structures for the story; a framework, a roadmap of where to go. But I wasn’t going to get any of that from him.

Truly, I was on my own this time.

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