Guns N’ Roses Icon Reveals Pathetic Money He Was Paid


Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan remembered being paid $0 for his first record deal, and his first Appetite for Destruction paycheck being for $80,000 in a new interview with Milana Rabkin Lewis. Blabbermouth transcribed his comments.

“I came up in the punk rock scene of Seattle. I saw The Clash in ’79, a band that was so exotic to me. I saw [Led] Zeppelin in ’77 play [the now-demolished Seattle stadium] The Kingdome. It was enormous, and the band was so small and so far away. I saw some other big bands — KISS and whatnot — and the punk rock thing hit, and The Clash were playing right in front of me. After the show, they came out into the crowd, and [Joe] Strummer said something on the stage that always left an indentation on me — ‘There’s no difference between us and you. We’re all the same. We’re in it together.’ Thus was born a DIY, punk rock scene in Seattle. We did everything ourselves – making fliers, booking shows, carting gear, booking VFW halls, lying to the police that it was a teen dance. Learning how to do the commerce of that — how to finagle the job you had to get to pay for rehearsal places, for an apartment and for fliers and for gear. You would trade for gear.

I started really learning the value of things, and I was really driven. Music was going to be my thing. Was I going to make a living at it? That was kind of a joke. It was just my passion, and if I was broke doing my passion, so be it. I had to do it. I played in a bunch of bands in Seattle. One of them got signed to Jello Biafra’s label [Alternative Tentacles]. We got no money for it, but we put a mark on the American map of punk rock. I was working at a restaurant in Seattle, saving my money to move to L.A… I moved to L.A. chasing my dream, and the first people I met was Slash and Steven [Adler] through an ad in the newspaper. We met down at Canter’s [Deli]. We stared at each other, but found that we had a lot of the lot of the same musical influences… There was always a missing piece in the tons of bands I was in in Seattle. I toured; I knew how to book a tour; I knew how to make a flier. But if you’re missing a piece in your band, like, there was always a weak link… When the five of us got in a room the first time in Silverlake in a rehearsal place, it was on. You could tell immediately. It was pretty ferocious.”

On the advice he’d give up-and-coming artists, and how it helped spur GN’R’s rise:

“My daughter has a band now, and the advice I have for her and what drove is is just writing to write songs [and] believing in yourself. Commerce was not a part of any of it at the beginning. You’ve got to really believe in your idea. We wrote the songs we wrote — we took from our own experiences, melded it together and wrote what became ‘Appetite For Destruction’. Then we started realizing we had to draw people to clubs. That was the next step. Our first gig was to three people. Our second gig was to tour. We knew all three and four people who came to our shows… We hustled, and we started to bring in 50 people and 100 people and kept writing those songs, and somehow, those songs identified with our generation. They weren’t pretty; it wasn’t sweet; they weren’t love songs. It was about drugs; it was about the darker side of what we were seeing. We all lived through that early ’80s recession. There was no jobs. [I] moved to Hollywood right after the [1984] Olympics, so the cops just left Hollywood and it was the Wild West as far as drugs and crime and whatnot. This is what we’re seeing — we’re seeing heroin; we’re seeing crack — and we wrote about it, because it was what we knew.”

On learning the ropes of the music business:

“We had to basically take a crash course. There was — still is — this Donald Passman book on the music industry [‘All You Need To Know About The Music Business’, now in its ninth edition]. We would read this thing. Publishing is a thing young musicians don’t know anything about, because it means nothing to you, but we were getting offered money for our publishing. One guy offered us at Denny’s a $10,000 traveler’s check for the publishing on ‘Welcome To The Jungle’. That was a lot of money for us, but we just thought if it’s worth something to him, it must be worth something to us. Later on when we got signed, we were offered a couple hundred grand for a big cut of our publishing. ‘Well, if it’s worth 200 grand to them, it must be worth 200 grand to us — and besides, it’s not their fuckin’ songs. We wrote them.’ It was really kind of a street mentality.

The money that we got from the label, we did understand that it was a loan. We started to figure out the bylines in the contract — the breakage [a term referring to a royalty deduction for damaged physical product] and whatnot, [which was] under no control of us that we would end up paying for, or, we wouldn’t get paid for those records. We took a crash course in all of that. We got tour support [because] we weren’t making enough money to pay for a tour bus. We were borrowing money from our roadies to eat… [Eventually,] we did get paid. My first check I’ll got, I went from poverty level to getting a check for $80,000 in 1988. $80,000 might as well have been a billion dollars. I didn’t know what to do with $80,000, so you begin asking questions about money. I didn’t know what a stock was, what a bond was. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions and saying, ‘I don’t know what that means,’ and I was afraid to do that for the next 10 years.”

On going back to school to study finance:

“My twenties were tumultuous at best… I think. That’s what they say. I woke up in an ICU at 30 and there was kind of a line drawn down the sand whether I want to live or die. It was pretty basic. I decided to take the first one. I had a big family and a lot to live for, so the thought came to my head, like, ‘I’ve made money in my twenties — a good amount of money. I don’t know how much; I don’t know who has taken from me — how much they have, if they have,’ which they did. It was time for me to sort of arrest this portion of my life and gain some knowledge, so I got myself eventually through going through community college and courses. I wanted to go to Seattle [University]. I thought I could go in and write a check and just go to school.

I got a GED, and I couldn’t just go in and write a check. I had to go through community college and get A’s in these classes and write [an] admittance essay… I got in, and just the accounting classes at the beginning alone were so valuable to me. I could read my financial statements that we were getting for the band, and my own personal financial statements. There was questions that arose from me being able to finally read these things, and some nervous people. I ended up moving accounting firms and matriculated through school… We formed this band called Velvet Revolver. At that point, I knew what I was talking about to a certain extent. Never assume you’re the smartest guy in the room, but I think they were assuming I was the smartest guy in the room, which is just fine. We did our record deal; we did our deal with agents, with a manager, with merch companies. I was there at every turn. We learned a lot from the Guns N’ Roses experience — managers commissioning off the gross… You live, you learn.”