Musicians: Don’t Make These Four Financial Mistakes If You Want A Lasting Career

Though musicians often see their professional and private lives as different things, no one should care more about your finances than you. Neglect your finances, and both you and your music are bound to suffer.
September 27, 2018

Musical tunnel vision takes its toll on musicians in many ways, but none more so than financial.

Musicians at every level of success put themselves at a massive disadvantage when they narrow the scope of their goals, perspective, and knowledge to nothing but their music. After all, financial security is the key to creative freedom.

Just look at the financial struggles of these four artists to highlight the importance of financial literacy for musicians.

Trent Reznor

Don’t just “leave the money to others”

Artists often treat financial matters as drudgery and uncool. Balancing a checkbook is hardly rock and roll. But passing the buck — literally — to others is just asking to be ripped off.

Trent Reznor, Academy Award winner and frontman of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, knows all too well the importance of musicians knowing what’s happening with their money at all times. In 2005, a jury awarded him $2.9 million dollars after it found that his former manager had been cheating him out of money for years.

Reznor claimed that his manager and accountant had tricked him into signing unfair contracts and had mismanaged his finances for as long as they’d worked together. Sure, Reznor eventually prevailed in court, but only after years of frustration and heartbreaking work he wouldn’t have had to endure had he been more involved with the finances surrounding his music in a more active way from the beginning.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why incredibly talented artists like Reznor get taken advantage of. When promising young musicians begin to find success, it’s not just music fans who take notice. Accountants, managers, and labels often step into the picture offering musicians a “you make the music and I’ll take care of the rest” deal.

These deals often lean heavily in favor of the older and more experienced party. Reznor’s trial made headlines because it was dramatic and because so much money was involved. But the financial situations of countless other career musicians that never make the news are just as bad.

This is why the image of an image of a musician appearing wealthy and successful at the start of their career only to have nothing to show for it a couple years later is all too common.

Cat Power and Grizzly Bear

Creative success doesn’t translate to financial longevity

Music has always been an incredibly difficult profession to find success in, but it’s never been harder than it is right now for musicians. Major successful and critically acclaimed artists are no exception.

Take beloved indie mainstay Cat Power. A 2012 article published in The Atlantic details the songwriter Chan Marshall’s financial struggles despite being one of indie rock’s most respect and successful musicians. She had an album that broke the Billboard Top 10, and sold out shows worldwide. But health problems and bankruptcy forced her to tour less. Indie powerhouse Grizzly Bear had a similar situation, caused by uninsured members succumbing to healthcare costs, as outlined in this Vulture profile of the Brooklyn-based band’s financial woes.

A lesson to be learned from the plights of these hardworking bands is that when it comes to today’s ever-evolving and cutthroat music industry, making a name for yourself is often not enough to pay the bills.

When one disaster means the difference of whether you’ll go bankrupt or not, simply making ends meet is not enough for musicians. There’s a Grand Canyon’s worth of difference between financially surviving and thriving, and the struggles of these artists show us why.

Goo Goo Dolls

One bad contract. Years of debt

Back in the 90’s, the Goo Goo Dolls were one of the world’s hottest bands. How hot? They sold over 2 million records. With that amount of success, you might assume that the alternative rock band was immune to financial problems while at the height of their fame.

But you’d be wrong. After signing a bad contract with Warner in 1998, the band’s advance put them deep in debt, which apparently took years to pay off.

Musicians that successful shouldn’t have that level of debt. But it happens when artists sign lopsided contracts written to favor labels, managers and publishers over the creators. Young, inexperienced musicians excited about their music put themselves at risk by committing to unfair agreements.

Marvin Gaye

When money troubles affect the music

Marvin Gaye is now remembered as one of the world’s greatest and most influential musicians. But despite his undisputed musical greatness, some bad choices in his personal life precipitated years of financial struggle and hardship.

Factors included a severe cocaine addiction, extramarital affairs, and exorbitant spending habits. Together, they put Gaye in the position of being both heavily in debt and also one of the world’s most successful musicians simultaneously in the 70’s. In 1976, he filed for bankruptcy. He released an album two years later that garnered poor sales and abysmal reviews.

Musical talent and success can’t save you from financial hardship. In fact, Gaye’s larger than life personality probably led to his troubles with money. Unchecked spending can lead to major problems for musicians. And, as evidenced by Gaye’s unsuccessful 1978 release, financial troubles often make their way from bank accounts to recording studios and stages.

Musicians often see their professional and private lives as different things. But money is something that links both identities in a powerful way. Neglect your finances, and both you and your music are bound to suffer.

No one should care more about your finances than you.

There comes a time in every successful musician’s career when some outside help is needed to help the artist focus on making music. Hiring someone like an accountant or financial manager is all well and good, but it doesn’t mean you should lose interest and hand the financial reigns over to someone else completely.

In short, no one will, or should, care about more your finances than you. This doesn’t mean you need to spend all your free time becoming a tax expert. Just be fully aware of what’s happening with your money at all times.

This advice applies to career musicians at every level of success, whether royalties account for a small portion of your income or your full paycheck. What we can learn from the musicians profiled here is that not caring about taking an interest in finances leaves all career musicians in a vulnerable, uninformed position.

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