In 2015, it’s no surprise to hear tales of hit-making artists making substandard wages: To cap off last year, Cee-Lo Green and Pharrell, who penned the year’s top-played songs, only earned a few thousand in streaming revenue. But it’s more surprising to hear that in 1991, the world’s biggest acts also struggled to turn a profit–only for different reasons.
Two and a half decades ago, Guns N’ Roses ruled the planet: Axl, Slash, Duff and Izzy toured the world, courted offers to pen tracks for the Terminator 2 soundtrack, and, sold millions of copies of the Use Your Illusion series. It may be surprising, then, to learn to learn that it took two years to see any profits from those albums.
According to Duff McKagan, the band earned boatloads of money supporting Use Your Illusion, but spent even more: They toured with a decadent 100-plus person staff, and used two stages.
“I know we generated a lot of money on that Use Your Illusion tour. Oh, crap, we generated a lot of dough,” he told the Jasta Show podcast.
“Our crew was a hundred and thirty people… A hundred and thirty! We had two stages going: we had an A stage and a B stage going around the world at all times.”
[pullquote]That’s why we toured for two and a half years, ’cause it took us two years to break even, just to break even, on that tour.[/pullquote]
So no, GNR didn’t earn pennies for their work in 1991. (In fact, complaining about it is firmly a First World problem.) Still, the band did see some financial difficulties: According to McKagan, Geffen, their record label, didn’t pay them for 6 million records.
“In 1994, I’d just gotten sober and I was kind of figuring some stuff out. And our lawyer said, ‘We’re gonna audit Geffen,’ audit our record company,” he says.
“Before that, I lived in this sort of fantasy world that they were our partner in this thing. We were going out and attacking the world together. Well, they didn’t pay us on something like 6 million records.
“That’s what we found. And they said, ‘Okay, fine. We’ll pay you for two. Or you can sue us.'”
The two eventually reached a settlement. And while GNR probably didn’t see their full earnings, it’s a good bet that they saw better returns than Pharrell saw from “Happy.”