Musicians Who Are Poorer Than You Thought

Musicians don't make what they used to. In the age of Spotify streaming, album sales are abysmal. If you're reading The Atlantic, 2012 was the year indie rock died because that's when we realized Cat Power wasn't making millions as the face of Chanel. In fact, she was flat-out broke, and so were some of our favorite artists of all time. Conor Oberst and Grizzly Bear, who spent their careers in the upper echelons of Pitchfork fame, were being priced out of New York City and struggling to afford health insurance.

Financial hardship isn't limited to indie rock royalty. It spills out into the mainstream to create the music industry's middle class, which happens to include some of the top-selling artists of all time. Meghan Trainor may know the inside of a private jet firsthand, but Kevin Kadish, who co-wrote her hit "All About That Bass," pulled in a paltry $5,679 for 178 million streams of the massive song. Even TLC, one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, earned a pretty modest salary at the height of CrazySexyCool's popularity.

From Michael Jackson to Toni Braxton, these musicians aren't all poor, but they definitely make a lot less than you would think.


TLC don't want no scrubs (a man that just "sits on his broke a**")  but the girls were sitting on their broke butts for a long time. TLC had a notoriously crooked record deal that left them making around $35,000 per year at the height of their career. At the same time that they were urging women everywhere to dump men who couldn't afford to move out of mom's house, they'd have been hard-pressed to find a mortgage of their own.

Throughout their career, TLC has sold over 65 million records worldwide, yet they've been forced to file for bankruptcy twice. It's a strange reality for the best-selling girl group behind The Spice Girls, but they received just seven percent of album revenue from CrazySexyCool.

"I will never forget the day we were millionaires for literally five minutes," Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins told The Guardian. "Because the check was written to us and we had to sign it over, back to [Pebbles, their former manager].

Today, TLC may be a bit more financially sound but the band still turned to indie artist crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to get financial help with their final record.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson is one of the best-selling artists of all time. He amassed over 61 million album sales in the U.S. and formed a billion-dollar empire, which included Disney theme park attractions, secret art collections, and the $47.5 million acquisition of ATV Music (i.e. the Beatles' entire catalog). The man invented Thriller — that's a pretty huge contribution to society. Despite his unmatched successes, the King of Pop died about $400 million in debt.

Jackson may have had a busy career during the late '80s and early '90s, but he stopped touring in 1997. In 2001, he released his final album Invincible, and his finances largely relied on other assets. According to Billboard, Jackson's acquisition of ATV Music allowed him to live a lavish lifestyle despite rarely performing live, but his finances went downhill after child molestation rumors surfaced in 1993. He later sold the ATV publishing rights to Sony for $95 million and used his remaining ATV assets as collateral for $200 million in Bank of America loans. With legal fees and soaring loan payments, Jackson faced foreclosure on Neverland Ranch.

Jackson, a 13-time Grammy winner, was gearing up for his first tour in over a decade, a sold-out, 50-show run at London's massive O2 Arena. The string of performances could have saved his finances, but he passed away from cardiac arrest in 2009 before it would ever happen.


For a top-selling pop star as big as Kesha, a $5 million net worth seems like pennies. Unfortunately, the star's ongoing lawsuit against producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke drained the star of her financial resources. According to TMZ, the singer was so broke that Taylor Swift gave her $250,000 to help cover legal costs.

Kesha's lawsuit against Dr. Luke has been a long road that halted the singer's career. In 2014, she took the producer to court for "sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abusing [her] to the point where [she] nearly lost her life." Dr. Luke countersued, and she was at an inpasse: make music with her alleged abuser while the trial continues, or don't make music at all. He even attempted to ban her from performing at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards. Without new music and live performances, she had no steady source of income.

Though the singer's lawsuits are on-going, Kesha recently had her much-deserved comeback. She pooled her remaining funds to make her third full-length album, Rainbow, which Sony claimed was entirely funded by the pop star herself. Rainbow debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold a whopping 90,000 albums in the U.S. during the first week. Though Dr. Luke is probably still entitled to collect a healthy portion of its earnings, he has to do so while "Praying" soars on the charts and becomes an inspirational anthem for a new generation.

Toni Braxton

With iconic hits like "Another Sad Love Song," Toni Braxton has raked in $170 million in worldwide sales, yet the star has filed for bankruptcy twice. Why? Apparently, Braxton never made all that much money. In an interview with 20/20 (via ABC News), the singer admitted that she received a paltry $1,972 from royalties for her first record contract.

"What happens is they give you advancement on the next record and then the next record," she explained. "So you kind of stay in debt, in a sense."

Though she emerged out of her 1998 bankruptcy thanks to a her hit "He Wasn't Man Enough" and a brand new record contract, her success didn't last long. She updated her classic R&B sound to keep up with modern hitmakers like Rihanna. The move backfired and her next three albums only sold a few hundred thousand copies. On the brink of bankruptcy, she self-financed a Las Vegas show, but was diagnosed with the hereditary autoimmune disease microvascular angina, a shortly after. Doctors told her she would never perform again, and she was forced to cancel the dates, which sent her finances over the edge. At the time of her second bankruptcy in 2010, she claimed to be $50 million in debt.

In recent years, Braxton has made a comeback thanks to her reality TV show Braxton Family Values. She is performing again (albeit at a slower pace), and still battling chronic illness.

Melanie Brown (Scary Spice)

If you were a teen girl in the late '90s and early '00s, the Spice Girls pretty much defined your existence. Every friends group had their Posh, Scary, Baby and Sporty (or Ginger, but let's be real, she was a total traitor for leaving and we will never forgive her). Still, the Spice Girls weren't just one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, they were the queens of branding. Their faces were plastered across Cadbury chocolates, Chupa Chup lollipops, commemorative Pepsi cans, limited edition Walkers crisps (the British version of Lays) and Barbie dolls. Couple that with their deliciously campy film Spice World, which is worth a mention solely because of Elvis Costello's cameo, and you've got a group of young millionaires.

Unfortunately, not all Spice Girls were created financially equal. Though they're all multi-millionaires, Melanie Brown (aka Scary Spice) has saved just a fraction of her Spice sisters' fortunes. According to Time, Victoria Beckham is the richest of the group with a fortune of $450 million. Though the other Spices have saved between $30 and $40 million, Brown reportedly has a spending problem which led her net worth to plummet to $10 million. On top of that, she's forced to pay her ex-husband Stephen Belafonte $15,000 per month in spousal support for three years. The lesson here is always get a prenup if you're an international superstar.

Mick Fleetwood

You don't expect the creator of Rumours, of one of the best-selling albums of all time, to be broke, but Mick Fleetwood sure had a rough time during the '80s. The Fleetwood Mac founder filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy after accruing over $3.5 million of debt. Today, Fleetwood is hardly what we'd consider broke, but his $20 million net worth is nothing compared to Stevie Nicks' $75 million. So, where did all of the money go? It depends on who you ask. His cash was lost somewhere between Australia and his very own nose.

According to some reports, Mick spent a whopping $60 million on cocaine throughout his career. He also blew a huge chunk of change on thousand-acre farm in Australia.

"I actually immigrated to Australia and gave up my green card. I thought it was a great place for all my friends and family, but it was also a pipe dream that literally took me to the poorhouse," he told Rolling Stone. "I went broke."

Fleetwood was able to bounce back from bankruptcy, but never amassed the same fortune as Nicks. The band is still touring today.

Conor Oberst

Conor Oberst was already being hailed as the Bob Dylan before he even reached the age of 25. The artist had amassed over half a million sales of his album I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and more than 250,000 copies of his previous release Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. It was a move that was virtually unheard of for an underground artist. A major label record deal and 14 studio albums later, the critically acclaimed indie darling's success was still not impervious to New York rent prices — or nasty rumors. 

In 2013, a fan falsely accused Oberst of rape. She eventually recanted her story, but the damage to his career had been done. He soon found himself unable to pay rising rent prices and was forced to give up the New York apartment he had called home for 13 years. He headed back to Nebraska and now lives in suburban Omaha with his wife and two roommates — despite sometimes feeling like an outsider.

"I mean, I don't necessarily have the best rep in town," he told Vulture. "I've been pretty outspoken politically, and some people just don't like the cut of my jib."

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear isn't like the rock stars of yesteryear. They don't have the mountains of cocaine, the babes, or the cash. Though their 2009 album Veckatimest sold 33,000 copies the first week, they toured in stadiums with Radiohead and headlined the iconic Radio City Music Hall, the band still struggles to afford health insurance.

Grizzly Bear managed to achieve indie rock's most lucrative feat — a Super Bowl commercial placement. Yet, founder Ed Droste still lives with his husband in a 450-square-foot Brooklyn apartment — the same one they lived in prior to Yellow House's success.

"People probably have an inflated idea of what we make," Droste tells Vulture. "Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one's buying records. But they'll go to giant shows."

Droste's experience isn't unusual considering an indie band's extensive payroll — from ticket companies and venue cuts to management and agent commissions, publishers and lawyers. While he admits no one in his band is "renting private jets," he does claim they're "surviving." Sounds pleasant, right?

Drake Bell

You may remember Drake Bell as a child star and Nickelodeon darling. The young actor-slash-musician rose to fame as one half of the iconic duo in Drake & Josh. The program was one of Nickelodeon's most beloved series, and it landed Bell a contract with Universal Motown. Unfortunately, Bell's career floundered after the show wrapped in 2007.

In 2014, Bell filed for bankruptcy after abysmal album sales. According to TMZ, he went from making $408,000 a year to just $14,099. He owed $1.59 million on his $1.57 million house, which was eventually foreclosed. On top of that, he owed thousands in back taxes and a broken wrist limited his ability to play guitar. Then, he got a second DUI (those legal fees ain't cheap) and things began to pile up.

Currently, the star's net worth is at negative $600,000 and he's resorted to making cameos in B-list horror films.

La Roux

In the age of streaming, it's increasingly difficult for artists to make money — even if they have a well-performing radio single like La Roux. The English electropop outfit best known for their hit "Bulletproof" has sold almost eight million records and still struggles to break even. According to singer Elly Jackson, they've never made any money on record sales, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find a person in America who can't sing at least one line from their 2009 hit.

"I spent two years on Trouble in Paradise and I most likely won't make any money out of it," she told Digital Spy (via The Guardian). "The only money I will make is from radio play. All the money I've had up until now is from radio. I think people find this really, really, really hard to believe. It's not a lie, it's just the way it is."

La Roux may not be the best-selling act on the planet, but they have had major chart success. Their self-titled record debuted at No. 2 on the UK album charts and their follow-up, Trouble In Paradise, debuted at No. 6. Despite this, Jackson claims they don't break even on most live gigs.

Chan Marshall (Cat Power)

Chan Marshall of Cat Power is a lot more than just one of indie rock's most heralded artists. In 2006, she became the face of renowned fashion house Chanel. That's sure to bring in a pretty penny, right? Unfortunately, even with her respectable album sales (her records have crossed into Billboard's Top 10) it wasn't enough to cover her costs. Couple that with cancelled gigs (including the coveted Coachella Festival) and health problems (Marshall suffers from angioedema), and Cat Power faced bankruptcy.

In 2012, Marshall was so broke that she struggled to afford recording her ninth studio album which took three-and-a-half years to complete.

"I got depressed and didn't work on [songs for the album] for eight months," she told GQ. "I got the itch again, but then I ran out of money. I cashed in a bond and bought some gear and rented a house in Malibu and wrote these other songs."

Though her net worth is estimated to be $3 million, Marshall hasn't released an album since Sun in 2012. It's extremely likely that her finances are even more dismal than before.

Courtney Love

Courtney Love might be worth an estimated $150 million because of her late husband's discography, but that doesn't mean it's even a fraction of what she should have. In 2009, the singer filed a lawsuit claiming that as much as $530 million of Kurt Cobain's cash was possibly stolen by her own staff — and she never realized because she hadn't been sober. If that realization wasn't enough to sober you up, what is?

Love's financials have always been sort of bizarre. She's lost millions to lawsuits over the years (between disputes about unreleased Nirvana material and Twitter defamation suits). In 2006, she sold 25 percent of Nirvana's publishing rights for an estimated $50 million, but was apparently hard-up enough for cash that she traded her daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, ownership of her father's likeness for a $2.75 million trust fund loan. By 2014, Love claimed to have lost about $27 million worth of Cobain's money, and Frances Bean was raking in over $95,000 per month from the deal.

Of course, Love didn't sweat the lost cash because she still has more money than someone could spend in a lifetime (but with those lawsuits, you never know). "I know that's a lifetime of money to most people, but I'm a big girl, it's rock 'n roll, it's Nirvana money, I had to let it go," she told The Sunday Times (via US Magazine).

If only most of us could let go of $27 million like it's 27 cents.