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Read this: How much money did Chuck Brown make?

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How much anyone makes in the music business is a subject of endless mystery and fascination — and today’s story about Chuck Brown’s estate offers a interesting window into some of these issues.

Chuck Brown (Michael Williamson / The Washington Post)

Back in 1995, our former colleague David Segal noted that many seemingly succesful recording artists were in deep debt to their record labels: They Might Be Giants had sold 1.5 million albums at that point, but almost all their income came “from touring, song writing and T-shirt sales, revenue that is not deducted from royalties.”

Washington Social Club (Joel Didricksen)

Clearly things have changed in the downloading era — for better and for worse. The record companies aren’t making much money now either, while some artists have worked out novel new ways of drawing an income: In 2007, the former D.C. band Washington Social Club threw a party to celebrate their $9,000 windfall from an episode of “Entourage” that had licensed one of their songs for a few seconds of background music; they’d had similar luck with other TV shows and a handful of commercials.

Washington is frequently visited by musicians here to lobby Congress about the copyright and royalties system that determines how much they get paid. In 2010, Garth Brooks got on his high horse about iTunes: “Fight to get your albums back, people. That’s how record companies make money [to develop young talent]. You can’t make money 99 cents at a time.”

Neil Diamond and Garth Brooks in 1996. (Vince Bucci / AP)

Of course, Brooks, with all his songwriting credits, is doing quite well compared to most. While composers reap big royalties from radio play, performers are largely cut out of that equation — which is why so many of your favorite non-writing singers are still having to tour in their old age, as soul legend Sam Moore explained to us during a 2010 visit. And yet, for songwriters, a hit song is like a blue-chip stock, paying huge dividends for years to come — as we learned recently about Neil Diamond, whose “Sweet Caroline” might earn him as much as $300,000 a year. And the songwriters are eager to keep things that way, as we saw during ASCAP’s annual Capitol Hill concert this week, where songs were sung by the unfamous yet quietly prosperous writers. (“When I started in the business writing songs, you could actually make a living writing songs,” harrumphed “Man in the Mirror” writer Siedah Garrett.)

But on to Chuck Brown. As our colleague J. Freedom du Lac and Hamil Harris, the go-go legend’s will shows that he earned from $235K to $285K a year — not bad. Yet Brown, who projected an aura of wealth — a limousine, alligator shoes, fur coats — “did not necessarily die rich,” with $75K in debts, much of it from medical bills, and only $53K in assets. Probably not an uncommon situation for many artists. Read more: Chuck Brown, Godfather of Go-Go, missed by family and fans one year after death



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