Most Famous Tax Evading Musicians
In their various forms throughout history, taxes have inspired the most famous musicians in fascinating ways. Big names like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and James Brown took advantage of loopholes in the taxing system, while others like Lauryn Hill and Prince concocted some fascinating arguments for not paying. Alas, most of them ended up paying the taxman in the end, The Rolling Stones excluded.
The Beatles were never hesitant to voice their disdain for the taxman. A highlight off their album Revolver, “Taxman”, was penned by George Harrison as a response to Harold Wilson’s supertax, which ordered the top tax bracket in the UK to pay up to 95% in taxes. The Fab Four weren’t pleased. “‘Taxman’ was when I first realized that, even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes,” Harrison said. Wilson gained a large number of seats in Britain’s general election of 1966, which took place only four months before the release of Revolver. Lines like “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street / If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat” play on the suffocating tax measures. The Beatles’ solution was practical. When they founded Apple Records in 1968, the aim was not only to get more control of their music, but to avoid certain royalty taxes as well.
The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones were another popular British group active during Harold Wilson’s reign. But they had a different, and more radical, tax-evading method: to leave the country. As one of the most successful tax-evading bands in history, their decision in 1971 to leave the UK and become “tax exiles” is why the classic Exile on Main St. bears its name. It also helped the Stones conserve cash long after exiling themselves. Comcast reported the band have paid a miniscule 1.6% tax on their £242million earnings the last 20 years. Banking in Holland for the past few decades helped them there. Mick Jagger was bluntly said to NME in 1971: “After working for eight years, I discovered at the end that nobody had ever paid my taxes and I owed a fortune. So then you have to leave the country.” A myriad of legal battles and unwanted tabloid attention solidified the decision, and the “tax exiles” left for France. The Rolling Stones even make tax evasion sound cool.
Eight-time Grammy-winner Lauryn Hill recently pleaded guilty to not paying taxes on $1.5 million in earnings from 2005 to 2007. She was quick to respond to the accusation on her blog. After extensive criticism of social and media institutions, Hill stated that not paying taxes was one way of “insulating friends and family from the influence of external manipulation and corruption.” She paid taxes in prior years, but felt “it was necessary to withdraw from society, in order to guarantee the safety and well-being of myself and my family.” Family has been a continuous theme in Hill’s music, particularly on her breakout 1998 solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. In addition to tracks like “To Zion”, which focused on her pregnancy and supportive family, the album featured spoken-word interludes on the concept of love. Her sentencing is set for this November.
In his prime, MC Hammer’s dancing abilities were rivaled by few in entertainment. He even had his legs insured for millions as a precaution. Considering how much they generated throughout his career, it was probably worth it. Additional ventures in film made his revenue stream diverse, and apparently hard to keep track of. Several copyright infringement lawsuits, including one alleged by Rick James, didn’t help. “U Can’t Touch This” accounted for only a fraction of Hammer’s $20+ million net worth at his height, but he struggled financially in the mid-‘90s despite the earlier fortune. In late 2011 he was ordered to pay $779,585 in back taxes to the IRS for earnings from 1996 to 1997. That period was a financial low point for the free-spender, so his form of tax evasion may have simply been the result of forgetfulness. Hammer cleared it up on Twitter: “700k … Don’t get too excited .. I paid them already and kept my receipt. Stamped by a US Federal Judge”.”
Most of Willie’s legal issues are petty marijuana run-ins, but the country great is hardly a stranger to tax evasion. In 1990, the IRS billed him $16.7 million in back taxes. His response was to release a double album in 1992 called The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?. Album sales, an IRS sell-off of most of his possessions, and a legal team that managed to negotiate his settlement to $6 million meant Willie was back making music in no time.
“Without an education, you might as well be dead,” James Brown sings on “Don’t Be a Dropout”, a track that supports his personal defense for not paying taxes. Brown argued that since the government did not offer him adequate schooling and civil programs, taxes were not mandatory for him. His wife and kids were credited as the writers on 1976′s “Get Up Offa That Thing” so Brown could avoid paying additional fees, as he was already in the midst of a battle with the IRS over back taxes. Repeated arrests for domestic violence didn’t help his cause.
Was it a coincidence that Prince’s fan club upped its renewal fee to $77 shortly after the IRS knocked on the performer’s door? Probably not, but a good amount of his diehard fan base complied. It was reported in 2010 that Prince owed about $450,000 in property taxes, which seems like chump change when one considers his going rate for a private performance of “Purple Rain”.