Broke musicians have one thing in common, and Biggie was not the first to experience it.
“Mo Money, Mo Problems.” Everyone knows the drummer who needs a couch to crash on or the guitarist who pawned their amp.
Stories of musicians who rose to the highest highs only to find themselves back at the bottom are everywhere. No matter how much their music means to us, broke musicians are still just that: broke.
Let’s take a closer look at five broke musicians!
How Do Famous Musicians Go Broke?
From the first time they sign a record deal and head into the recording studio, musicians are big business. For many, the record deal is the goal. Once they sign and get their first advance, plenty of people are willing to help them spend it. Financial advisors, friends who need a handout, and expensive taste are all ways famous musicians go broke.
Many musicians focus their whole lives on creating something new. They spend little, if any, time learning how to manage their money. Shady managers and investment opportunities come out of the dark corners to help them with their newfound wealth.
In many cases, the biggest thing to fear is the IRS. Despite legal challenges, many of our favorite musicians can come back from financial trouble. After that, they continue to make music for years to come. Sadly, some are not.
#1 Billy Joel
Born Wiliam Martin Joel in 1949, Billy “The Piano Man” Joel is one of the most prolific and successful artists of the last 50 years. His path to stardom was not easy. It took him 12 years to finally find commercial success with his album The Stranger in 1977.
With the success of The Stranger, Billy needed a financial advisor. He hired his friend and former brother-in-law, Frank Weber, to handle his finances. Joel continued to top the charts and tour around the world.
Fast forward to 1989. Joel found out that Weber had mismanaged his funds to the tune of $90 million. Joel only recovered $8 million of his squandered funds even after a court battle. Don’t worry about Billy Joel though. His current net worth is over $250 million.
#2 Marvin Gaye
Straight from the projects of Washington D.C., Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. was born to a preacher and housecleaner in 1939. Always a singer, Gaye added the ”e” to his name in 1961 ahead of the release of his first single “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide.”
For the next two decades, Gaye was a household name. He racked up hit after hit on the Billboard 100. One thing he did not do was pay taxes. In late 1978 he relocated to London to escape the almost $4.5 million in back taxes he owed. He finally returned in 1981 and the government took him to court.
By 1984 all Gaye had left to his name was rights to his songs and a cocaine habit. In April of 1984, Marvin tried to break up a fight between his father and mother at their home. His father shot him twice and killed him. At the time of his death, Gaye owed over $9 million.
#3 Meat Loaf
Marvin Lee Aday, Meat Loaf to you and me, was born in 1947 in Dallas, Texas. “Everything is bigger in Texas,” and Meat Loaf certainly lived up to that saying. Beyond his rock persona, Meat Loaf was known as an actor. He starred in films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Fight Club.
After an appearance in the musical “Hair” on Broadway, Meat Loaf returned to Texas. He then recorded what would become the #3 best-selling album of all time, Bat Out of Hell, with his collaborator Jim Steinman.
It was this relationship that caused his downfall. With the pressure of the success of Bat Out of Hell, Loaf became addicted to cocaine. In 1983 found himself on the receiving end of over 40 lawsuits from Steinman totaling $80 million.
Meat Loaf lost everything including rights to his songs. Finally, in 1997 he received royalties for Bat Out of Hell. Steinman and Loaf got back together, and before his death in 2022 Loaf was worth $40 million.
#4 Tom Petty
Thomas Earl Petty was born in 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. Petty decided to pursue music after becoming obsessed with The Rolling Stones. Following a stint as a gravedigger, Petty formed the band Epic. In his first band, he played with musicians who would later join him in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
In 1977 they released their first album. After touring, recording, and releasing a second album, Petty decided it was time to split with his record company. ABC records announced they were being sold to MCA. Petty would not back down on his demand to not be sold without his consent and declared bankruptcy.
He was almost immediately signed to a new label MCA created for him, Backstreet Records. Petty continued recording until 1981 when he withheld another record. MCA wanted to charge an extra $1 for it. MCA finally caved and Petty allowed the release of his record Hard Promises for $8.98.
In 2017, Petty was found unresponsive in his home. He died of what turned out to be a fentanyl overdose. At the time of his death, Petty was worth $95 million.
#5 Willie Nelson
Known for his long white braids and bandana, Willie Nelson started his career as a clean-cut country crooner from Abbott, Texas. Raised by his grandparents, Nelson’s career started in 1956 at the age of 23. In 1971 he joined Waylon Jennings in the new outlaw country movement and found his niche.
Nelson toured extensively and found financial success. He was also arrested for possession of marijuana many times. Nelson found himself on the wrong side of the law yet again in 1990.
Nelson’s tax attorney let him know and he sent his beloved guitar Trigger to Hawaii with his daughter. Shortly after, the IRS seized and sold all of Nelson’s assets to pay for his $32 million tax bill.
Willie’s friends bought all of his belongings and returned them to him. And he got Trigger back in 1993. Nelson took to the stage again, touring for the next 20 years.
Nelson is known as an activist musician and has championed many causes over the years. He has championed LGBTQ rights, the legalization of cannabis, and immigration reform. He continues to perform from his home in Spicewood, Texas, and is worth $25 million.
Broke Musicians Can Rebuild
It’s hard for many of us to imagine rising to the level of success that these five artists did. The amount of money involved in these lawsuits is mind-boggling. The fact is that many of these musicians started from nothing.
However, most of these men were able to rebuild their careers after seeing the depths of despair. If musicians know how to do anything, it is to stick with the hustle and stick it to the man.