Think of pop stars’ salaries and you invariably think of Forbes list multi-millionaires, of Beyoncé, Bono and Bieber, and of the “jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash” lifestyle parodied in Lorde’s Royals. Or perhaps, if you watch daytime TV, you think of Paul Cattermole.
The former S Club 7 singer, semi responsible for a string of late-nineties and early noughties hits such as Bring It All Back and Don’t Stop Movin’, appeared on Loose Woman earlier this month pleading poverty. Having been declared bankrupt in 2015, Cattermole is so down at heel, he said, that he’s been reduced to living off instant noodles.
He’s had to lobby reality TV producers to appear on their shows (unsuccessfully). And he’s tried to sell one of his Brit Awards on eBay (according to NME, the sale was pulled after a fan failed to pay their £66,000 bid). As Brits presenter Jack Whitehall pointed out live on air at this year's show, there ain't no auction like an S Club auction.
It was impossible not to feel deeply for Cattermole, who even had to borrow the shirt on his back for his appearance on the show. The outpouring of sympathy on social media suggests no-one like to see their former idols fall on hard times. However, his appearance busts one of the biggest myths of showbiz: that global success, awards and number one singles lead to a lifetime of riches. They absolutely don’t. As Cattermole diplomatically put it, “the perception on the outside is not what it’s like on the inside”.
So are some pop stars really paid a pittance? Or is it more a case of bad financial management on their parts once the lights fade and the fickle audience migrates to the next big sensation?
The answer to the first question is, of course, "yes". The plight of the South Korean ‘K-Pop’ artists who are signed to so-called slave contracts, giving them little control over their careers and scant financial reward, has been well documented. And over here, artists who come to prominence as part of the reality TV world often complain about being broke.
In 2015, X Factor semi-finalist Lauren Murray said she was so strapped for cash that she couldn’t even buy a pair of knickers. Murray, obviously, wasn’t a proper pop star but her plight tells of the grimness behind the glitter. Complaints about lack of money echo down through the ages.
In the recent BBC documentary series about the music industry called Hits, Hype and Hustle, rhere was a telling moment when Michael Grant, the keyboard player in reformed 1980s reggae band Musical Youth, was pleasantly surprised to be paid a fee for performing a gig. Back in the day, Musical Youth either lost money on touring or the fee never reached them.
However it’s wrong to assume that all pop bands like S Club 7 who are assembled by svengali-like management figures get nothing. Like anything manufactured, their creators naturally want to see a return on their investment. But Simon Fuller, S Club’s manager and the man behind the Spice Girls, apparently paid them pretty well at the time. Hannah Spearritt, another S Club member and Cattermole’s former girlfriend, revealed in 2016 that she made around £150,000 a year over the band’s four year lifespan.
While that’s a night’s work for a true megastar like Ed Sheeran, it’s still a very meaningful sum. And considering the other costs that needed to be covered by the S Club machine – management’s cut, hiring writers and producers, studio costs, label fees, marketing, promotion and travel costs, and then splitting what’s left seven ways – it certainly doesn’t scream "rip off". Interestingly, the average salary today for a UK musician or singer is £26,491, around £3,000 more than the national average, according to the PayScale website. So S Club were doing all right.
The far more common reason for former pop stars to fall on hard times is their lack of smarts when it comes to financial management. And who could blame them? Plucked from obscurity, set up with a home, ferried around the globe, blind-sided by instant fame and screaming fans, and given an allowance to cover the rare occasions when they’re not given free stuff, it’s little wonder that pop sensations have neither the time nor the inclination to pore over the FT in the mornings. It’s no surprise that many pop stars think that ISAs are the cube-shaped things in buckets that keep their Krug chilled.
Reality can bite pretty hard when things come to a sudden end. Nathan Moore, former singer in boyband Brother Beyond, who had two top 10 singles and a top ten album in the late 1980s, has said that “nothing prepares you” for financial realities once the success merry-go-round stops.
“I’d just been on tour of America for three weeks. I got invited to dinner with Madonna, I met Warren Beatty, Sandra Bernhard,” he said in 2015. “Then the week we came back our manager said, ‘You’ve been dropped by EMI’. I had no money, I then got a massive tax bill, I got made bankrupt, I had nowhere to live, I had to borrow money off my dad just to eat. I’d gone from flying first class, hotels, everything, to getting on the bus. It really was one of the worst times of my life.”
Cautionary tales abound. The former Westlife singer Shane Filan was declared bankrupt in 2012 after losing millions on property investments. This is Westlife who sold over 50 million records worldwide and had 14 UK number one singles. Hear’Say’s Suzanne Shaw was once £200,000 in debt. Blue’s Duncan James filed for bankruptcy. Atomic Kitten’s Kerry Katona has been bankrupt more than once. The list is endless.
Alan Edwards, one of the presenters of Hits, Hype and Hustle and a music PR veteran who has worked with David Bowie, The Who, Amy Winehouse and Prince, says that there are “myriad” reasons why bands and singers end up with no money. Many of these are self-inflicted. The Zombies, for example, broke up before their best album, Odessey and Oracle, was released, hardly a commercially astute move.
Egos get involved too. Edwards says that many bands in their prime try to create their own mythology, which can be costly. “One band I knew wanted to get a rock n roll reputation and went off on a tour of Australia and kept smashing their equipment,” he tells me. “Fans loved it but half way through the gigs they ran out of equipment, and you couldn’t just hire gear anywhere in the 1980s. They had to come back to the UK red faced having spent all their money on damages and only getting part of their fee because they didn’t finish the gigs.”
However, financial woes can’t all be laid at the feet of the bands.
Some managers deliberately pick their talent on the basis of how malleable and naive they are. The more wide-eyed they are, the svengalis think, the more they can manipulate them. And financial innocence is a corollary of this unworldliness.
In his book Let’s Make Lots of Money: My Life as the Biggest Man in Pop, Tom Watkins, the puppet master behind Bros and East 17, openly admits that he looked for performers he could shape. Writing about the first time he met Bros in 1986, he says: “Mentally I rubbed my hands gleefully, sensing that they were putty in them. Unlike Neil and Chris [of the Pet Shop Boys, who Watkins also managed], I could mould this lot with complete control.”
They sold millions of records, yes. But Bros’s Matt and Luke Goss “had no apparent understanding of money and seemed to have little interest in developing any”, Watkins said. On one occasion, after Watkins and his team gave the boys a bollocking for burning through so much cash, Luke “bought a Porsche on the way home to cheer himself up”.
In a 2013 Telegraph interview, Matt Goss admitted that they were “very decadent” in those years. But they never declared themselves bankrupt.
Dodgy accountants have regularly fiddled bands’ books. “When I co-managed Big Country, we were approached by a smooth-talking accountant, who tried to interest us in his services,” says Edwards. “He suggested a system that was so byzantine and complex with off-shore companies and so on, that we decided against it. Wisely so, as the said gentleman ended up disappearing with £6 million of a big star’s money. Not long after he was jailed.”
The truth is that saving and investing for the future is the last thing on your mind when you’re living a lifestyle that is draped in the trappings of wealth. In the music business, where perception is as important as reality and status is conferred at alarming speed, it’s easy for bands to confuse cachet with cash and street cred with bank credit.
And when the world seems to be at your feet, it’s easy to act recklessly. Besides, isn’t rock and roll about taking risks? But the spotlight can be turned off in a heartbeat. The scaffolding of success can be ripped away in days and assembled elsewhere.
And when it’s gone, as Cattermole and countless others will tell you, you can be left very exposed indeed.