The Digital Skeptic: Justin Timberlake is Just Getting By

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Topping the pop charts for the past six months is one thing. But making any money at it, that's another. Just ask Justin Timberlake.

Right before the Fourth of July holiday, Billboard.com went wide with fresh Nielsen SoundScan album sales numbers. Not surprisingly, for the first half of 2013 Timberlake led the industry with his The 20/20 Experience disc, which moved a solid-sounding 2 million units so far this year.

It's no secret how JT did it. The man sang, danced and acted with a Schwarzenegger-on-steroids work ethic. Remember how he played both host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live back in March? And he did not one, but five nights as Jimmy Fallon's co-host. Then, let's see ... there was the round-the-clock free performances at SXSW in Austin followed by more appearances on Leno, MTV and Fox. The grind of what of what it took to actually guilt today's lazy, thieving music consumer into paying real money for a real record is all perfectly documented on justintimberlake.com.

But investors should take note that, in spite of all the hustle, if this album's first few months on the market is any indication, being a musical star these days is not the living it used to be.

"Timberlake is just doing it to get the word out," said Brandon Duncombe, the smartest industry-savvy person I know. Duncombe co-owns EnP Music Group, a Miami recording and talent management firm. "He's not going to be making much money on this record. He's got his film career."

Never touching Whitney
To see what Duncombe's talking about, let's compare what a star such as Timberlake made in sales with the earnings from a chart-topping disc of the past -- say, from the spring of 1993; more specifically, the Clive Davis-produced, Whitney Houston-featuring soundtrack for The Bodyguard.

It's an apt comparison. The 20/20 Experience is a first-line earner for the American corporate music machine as The Bodyguard was back in the '90s. And earn it did.

The Bodyguard was the first album to sell more than 1 million copies in a week, says the Recording Industry Association of America. Depending on who you believe, it moved anywhere from about 28 million to 45 million copies worldwide. Estimate a median-value 36 million units moved at a $15 purchase price and let's call it roughly $540 million in global album revenues.