While she may be best known for her country crooning, her investment in Dollywood has helped her become one of the richest musicians in the world.
In the mid 1970s Elvis Presley, then in the middle of his comeback, approached Dolly Parton. He wanted to cover “I Will Always Love You,” Parton’s 1974 chart-topping single. Having the King of Rock and Roll cover one of her tunes seemed to be a no-brainer.
But there was a catch: Presley’s manager insisted that she sign over half the publishing rights. Parton refused. Ever since she started her own music publishing company in 1966, she had held onto nearly all of her publishing rights, which meant she got paid a bigger royalty whenever one of her songs is played or covered. She wasn’t about to change that—even for the King. The deal was called off.
Almost two decades later, Whitney Houston covered the song, with Parton holding on to those lucrative publishing rights. Every time it is played on the radio, purchased as a cassette or used in a film, Parton receives a publishing fee.
The song has made her very rich: “When Whitney [Houston’s version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland,” she told Country Music Television in 2006. (In actuality, she didn’t buy Graceland, and instead invested some of the royalties from the song in a Black community in Nashville by purchasing an office complex there.)
It’s that kind of shrewd business mindset that has helped Parton build an estimated $350 million fortune. And while her music catalog makes up about a third of that, her largest asset is Dollywood, the theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee that she cofounded 35 years ago. It was one in a series of moves made by Parton, who has proved herself as talented a businesswoman as she is a singer-songwriter.
Shrewd business mindset helped Parton build an estimated $350 million fortune
At age 75, Parton remains as in demand as ever. In 2019, she signed a deal with licensing company IMG to expand her brand into consumer products. In 2020, she released her first holiday album in 30 years and starred in the Netflix film Christmas on the Square. Her TV movie Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings: These Old Bones was nominated for an Emmy Award in July 2020. Last month, she launched her firstever perfume called “Scent from Above,” that’s complete with a bedazzled bottle. Parton has also extended her appeal to a younger generation: She’s racked up 5.2 million followers on Twitter and 4.3 million on Instagram, where she went viral last year after sparking a meme.
Born in 1946 in a one-room cabin in rural Tennessee, Parton grew up watching her father hustle as a sharecropper, tobacco farmer and construction worker, and listening to her mother sing as she cared for her 12 children. She began performing as a child, first in church and then on local television and radio stations, before moving to Nashville the day after her high school graduation in 1964 to pursue a career in the industry.
She started as a songwriter, co-writing country hits with her uncle. At first, she was signed with Combine Music, but when that contract expired in 1966, the 20-year-old Parton made one of the most consequential business decisions of her career: With her uncle, she founded her own publishing company.
From then on, Parton—who has had 25 No.1 hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart— has owned her own publishing rights. Since her debut album, 1967’s Hello I’m Dolly, through her latest, 2020’s A Holly Dolly Christmas, Parton has insisted on maintaining full ownership of her publishing rights and, with the exception of a handful of tracks, still owns them all.
That decision has proven prescient. As investors like Universal Music and Hipgnosis have begun to snatch up the rights to catalogs like those of Bob Dylan (in a deal worth $325 million) and Paul Simon ($250 million), the value of popular music catalogs has hit an all-time high. Parton’s library of more than 3,000 song credits, including hits like “9 to 5” and “Jolene” reportedly brings in between $6 million and $8 million in royalty payments each year. Forbes estimates her catalog, which she owns all of, is worth about $150 million.
Her entry into the world of amusement parks was another wise decision. In 1986, she sought to take some of the millions she’d earned as a country star and invest in her hometown. She partnered with Herschend Family Entertainment to transform their eastern Tennessee amusement park, Silver Dollar City, into Dollywood, building Dolly-themed spots like Aunt Granny’s restaurant, the 450-seat Back Porch theater and the rafting ride Smoky Mountain River Rampage.
With so many fans in the state where Parton grew up and her authentic connection to the nearby Smoky Mountains, the park was a natural hit. In its first season, Dollywood attracted 1.3 million visitors—a 75% increase over Silver Dollar City’s season the year prior. The park is now Tennessee’s most-visited tourist attraction, drawing about 3 million visitors a year. Parton’s 50% stake is worth about $165 million, Forbes estimates.
Forbes estimates her catalog, which she owns all of, is worth about $150 million
“It’s a piece of Americana,” says Evan Weiss, the chief operating officer of consultancy LW Hospitality Advisors, who has worked on projects in the region.
Since 1986, the theme park has expanded in size: The company has spent $110 million on additions, and Parton is a co-owner of the nearby Splash Country water park (Parton’s share is worth an estimated $20 million), the DreamMore Resort and Spa ($15 million) and eight restaurants and dinner theaters in the area. The Dollywood Company is currently working on building another hotel, Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort, in the region as the first in a $500 million ten-year investment across its properties.
While it may seem counterintuitive, the pandemic might have actually helped Dollywood, says hospitality consultant Weiss, given the park’s position in the market. While the attraction lost months of revenue at first, once it reopened in June 2020—at a limited capacity at first and with the addition of hundreds hand-sanitizer stations—it became a go-to tourist attraction for travelers in the region who wanted an outdoor vacation without the risks of flying. “The drive-to-staycation market is on fire, and it has been since last year,” says Weiss.
According to a Morning Consult poll from late July focused on “the return to normal,” 75% of Americans said they feel safe comfortable taking a road trip, while only 41% say they’re comfortable with domestic flights and 30% are comfortable with international flights. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee made Tripadvisor’s 2021 list of Trending Destinations thanks to its growing popularity among travelers.
But Parton’s crowning achievement of the past couple of years has little to do with music, acting or theme parks: In April 2020, she announced a $1 million gift to Vanderbilt University to help research the coronavirus; seven months later, a report by The New England Journal of Medicine revealed her money helped fund Moderna’s vaccine.
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate,” she sang to the tune of “Jolene” as she got her jab. “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, ‘cause once you’re dead then that’s a bit too late.”
Source: forbes.com, Main photo: media.distractify.com