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updated 2/8/2006 10:11:21 AM ET 2006-02-08T15:11:21

Complaining about the musical guests at Super Bowl halftime shows may be a time-honored tradition, but you've got to hand it to the NFL and ABC this year: When they handed over their precious 12-minute time slot to the Rolling Stones, they were giving the people what they wanted.

That's because the Stones, wrinkles and all, were the most popular act in the United States in 2005, at least when it comes to the cash they generate. The band tops Forbes' list of last year's biggest money makers in music, generating some $168 million in record and concert sales. U2, which generated close to $150 million at cash registers and on the road, came in second; Elton John, who didn't even release a new album last year, rounds out the top ten list with $66 million.

To compile the list — which looks at the cash different musicians generated, not what actually ends up in their bank account — we used data from concert trade magazine Pollstar's list of top grossing U.S. tours and U.S. sales information from tracking service Nielsen SoundScan.

In the Stones' case, as with many of the acts that made this year's top ten, the fact that the group doesn't sell much music is irrelevant — their big money came almost entirely from touring. That's because even one of the year's top albums — say, the Black Eyed Peas' "Monkey Business," which sold 3 million copies in the U.S. — generates an average of $13 per CD sold. But the average ticket price for a top act can easily dwarf $100 a pop — an evening with the Eagles cost an average of $108 a ticket last year — which lets the biggest touring acts gross millions per night.

That's also why there's not much crossover between the 2005 top earners and the nominees for the 48th annual Grammy awards. Though Mariah Carey, who is nominated for song of the year and album of the year, sold some 5 million CDs last year, she didn't hit the road, limiting her potential revenue. But Green Day, which is up for a record of the year nomination, sold both CDs and concert tickets, earning the group a fourth place slot on the top earner list.

Think of the list as a quick snapshot of a music act's relative earning power, but take it with some caveats: Musicians' take of tour revenue, for instance, varies widely, and those gross numbers don't include other potential revenue from things like merchandise sales and corporate tour sponsorships and international revenue. All of the biggest touring acts also usually receive advances that can dwarf the day's gross ticket sales. Likewise, most musicians rarely see a royalty check from individual album sales, but count instead on oversized advances that are in effect back-payment from previous successes. And the list doesn't include other sources of income like movie deals, ad campaigns, or, in 50 Cent's case, vitamin water sales.

The fact that most of the music businesses' most successful performers make most of their money on the road hasn't gone unnoticed by the music labels like Warner Music Group and Vivendi Universal's Universal Music Group, which are still dealing with an industry-wide slump in CD sales. In recent years, they've tried exploring the idea of "sharing" touring revenues with their star acts. But aside from EMI Music Group PLC, which now gets a piece of tour revenue from both British pop singer Robbie Williams Korn, the once-hot rock group, the notion hasn't gotten much traction.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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