This week, Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s singles chart for the sixth time, the latest victory for a song that broke records when it was released in January and has since been streamed more than a billion times around the world.
But when it comes to royalties for “7 Rings,” the biggest winner may be two songwriters who died decades ago: Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Ms. Grande’s song is an extended reinterpretation of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music,” with Ms. Grande changing the original’s lyrics about innocent joys — “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” — to an anthem of empowerment through conspicuous consumption. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s and bottles of bubbles,” she sings, over a bass-heavy beat. “Buy myself all of my favorite things.”
The song is credited to a total of 10 writers. But two of them — Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II — control 90 percent of the songwriting royalties, a remarkable split that reflects the value of evergreen song catalogs, and of the negotiating leverage their owners have when pop stars come seeking permission.
In an especially speedy turnaround, the deal for “7 Rings” was decided a few weeks before the song’s release in January, when representatives for Ms. Grande and her label, Republic, brought the completed song to Concord, the music company that has owned the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog since 2017. Concord requested 90 percent of Ms. Grande’s song, and her representatives accepted without further negotiation.
Ms. Grande’s song “wouldn’t exist in its current form were it not for ‘My Favorite Things,’” Jake Wisely, Concord’s chief publishing executive, said in an interview.
The deal means that Concord stands to make millions of dollars from the song, while Ms. Grande and her seven co-writers will each get just a fraction of what Concord makes. (The songwriting royalties are separate from the earnings Ms. Grande would make as the recording artist. Through her label, she declined to comment.)
Theodore S. Chapin, the executive who has managed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s copyrights for decades, said he was initially taken aback by Ms. Grande’s song. But he quickly saw its value as a reinterpretation, and as a way of keeping the original’s legacy alive among Ms. Grande’s young fans.
He also thought that Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers’s composer daughter, who died in 2014, “would have thought this is pretty kick-ass.”
Although it has long had a conservative reputation for protecting its copyrights, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization has a distinct history of making commercial deals. Rodgers, who died in 1979, even approved a Clairol ad that changed a famous lyric from “South Pacific”: “I’m gonna wash that gray right outa my hair.”
“The fact that Rodgers had agreed to that in his lifetime,” Mr. Chapin said, “gave all of us a little license to feel that we should keep an open mind on these kinds of things.”
Yet the license for “7 Rings” is especially favorable to Rodgers and Hammerstein. When Gwen Stefani used some of the yodeling “Lonely Goatherd” (also from “The Sound of Music”) for a 2006 song, “Wind It Up,” Rodgers and Hammerstein received only 50 percent of the royalties.
The difference between the two deals could reflect Concord’s greater negotiating power. Or, according to Lisa Alter, a lawyer who specializes in music copyright, it could just be that “My Favorite Things” is a more precious property.
“It probably implies that more of the song is being used, or how iconic the original song is,” said Ms. Alter, who was not involved with the “7 Rings” deal.
And what might Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves have thought of Ms. Grande’s song? Todd S. Purdum, the author of “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution,” said the masters of musical theater enjoyed being in the thick of popular culture. But most important, he said, they were never ashamed of commercial success.
“They would love the ka-ching of it,” Mr. Purdum said.