By Zack O'Malley Greenburg
"American Idol" first aired on June 11, 2002, -- when Scotty McCreery was eight years old. Now 19, he's nearly two years removed from winning the show, and he's already living up to its lofty title.
After receiving a $250,000 record deal as part of his "Idol" victory package, McCreery smashed expectations with his debut album, "Clear As Day," which sold over 1 million copies. The teenager quickly took advantage by hitting the road last year, opening for Brad Paisley. Next up: a solo tour and a new album later this year, all while continuing his college education. And he'll be able to afford it, with an estimated $4 million in earnings last year, thanks largely to "Idol."
"It's meant everything," says McCreery of the show. "I didn't have a career before, so it was the starting point for my career and it got me going. ... They reach like 16 million fans on a bad night."
Indeed they do. Though the show's 2013 premier earlier this month drew 17.9 million viewers, a 19 percent dip from last year, contestants from previous seasons continue to pull in heady annual earnings. Only a few bank as much as some of the show's judges, who will take home a combined $54 million -- nearly twice the total earnings of the top ten alums. A notable exception: the one who started it all.
Kelly Clarkson leads this year's list with earnings of $8 million, about what Nicki Minaj makes for her role on "Idol" and twice what Keith Urban gets. More than a decade after winning Season 1, Clarkson continues to grow her career, and her bank account, with the help of gold-certified album "Stronger," a mentor role on "The Voice," a Toyota commercial and a lucrative tour. She also sang -- live -- at President Obama's inauguration.
On Forbes: In Pictures: Top-Earning American Idols
Carrie Underwood claims the second spot, boosted by new album "Blown Away." The record went on to sell 1.2 million copies (just shy of the total for Justin Bieber's "Believe"). Underwood didn't tour much during our scoring period, but with an average nightly gross in excess of $400,000, she's set for a big year with a string of concert dates running through at least early summer. Underwood shares the No. 2 position with Chris Daughtry, whose eponymous rock group continues to tour heavily, pulling in six-figure nightly grosses along the way.
Our numbers are based on estimated income from May 2011 to May 2012, before subtracting taxes, "American Idol"'s cut and any additional fees for agents, lawyers and managers. The totals were compiled with the help of data from Pollstar, RIAA and others, as well as interviews with industry insiders including managers, publicists, agents and some of the musicians themselves.
For a handful of artists, a higher position on next year's list is all but guaranteed. Adam Lambert toured his way to $6 million in earnings in 2011 and this year falls to No. 7 with $1.5 million after taking time off to record "Trespassing." The new album was released after the end of our scoring period, but debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts with 78,000 copies sold its first week.
Keep an eye on last year's winner, Phillip Phillips, whose commercial success came too recently to land him on this year's list but could well push him toward the top next time. His coronation song, "Home," clocked 279,000 downloads in its opening week, and he's set to hit the road with Matchbox 20.
Another one to watch: Jordin Sparks, who ranks No. 6 with earnings of $2 million. She opened for New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys in 2011 and appeared in Sparkle alongside Whitney Houston in 2012. In the coming year, look for her to get a boost from new movie projects and a Reebok endorsement deal--all successes than can be traced to the show that launched her.
"'American Idol' kick-started me in my career," Sparks told FORBES last year. "It gave me an amazing fan base money can't buy."
Now six years removed from her Idol victory, Sparks doesn't have to worry about handing a chunk of her earnings back to the show that launched her. More recent winners must turn over somewhere in the neighborhood of half of their income to "Idol" -- before paying any remaining agents, managers and attorneys, not to mention Uncle Sam.
For McCreery, that probably means pocketing only about one-fifth of his $4 million payday. He's fine with that.
"It's depressing when you look at it, but I'm still making a good amount," says McCreery. "I'm not in any way complaining ... I'm doing a lot better than I was a few summers ago, living off the coin jar in my truck."