The dark tale of TLC going bankrupt in the ’90s

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The dark tale of TLC going bankrupt in the ’90s

Words by Jacob Colliver

According to the members of TLC, as their success mounted, so did their debt.

With four career Grammy Awards, five MTV Video Music Awards and five Soul Train Music Awards, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and the late, great Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes are legends in their field.

However, despite their unmistakable presence in the R&B history books, T-Boz, Chilli & Left Eye all ended up filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 3, 1995, declaring debts of a whopping $3.5 million. Bloody how?

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TLC had just released CrazySexyCool less than a year ago, which contained timeless bangers like ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘Creep’. They’d received critical acclaim and heavy commercial success, spending over two years on the Billboard 200 and peaking at number three.

In Australia, the album hit number five on the ARIA charts and was twice certified platinum, going on to sell 14 million copies worldwide. CrazySexyCool became the best-selling album by an American female group, and remains the only album by a female group to receive a diamond certification from the Recording Industry Association of America – which they’ve certified as going platinum 11 times in the USA.

They were music royalty; how could something on that level of total financial ruin even possibly happen?

As it turns out, quite easily – provided you’re familiar with the sneaky pitfalls of a juicy Hollywood contract. The group maintained that they’d copped a pretty unfavourable deal concerning their contracts with both their manager Perri “Pebbles” Reid and their associated labels LaFace Records and Arista Records.

Firstly, Arista Records, LaFace Records, and Pebbitone recouped their investment for recording costs, manufacturing and distribution, which is a pretty standard practice in the music industry – the label will foot the upfront bill for getting the album off the ground, and take it out of the artist’s cut of the sales later on down the track.

This becomes troublesome if you lash out and mismanage funds – which TLC definitely alleged.

Both Pebble’s production company Pebbitone and LaFace Records then went on to charge for a host of other expenses, including airline travel, hotels, promotion, those neon-shiny definitively-’90s music videos, food, clothing, and more.

According to the members of TLC, the more successful CrazySexyCool became, the more they were in debt. It didn’t help that Watkins also required money for serious medical attention and Lopes had insurance payments to make after an arson incident (long story).

After these costs, managers, lawyers, producers, and taxes had to be paid, leaving each member of the group with less than $50,000 a year for their efforts – which isn’t great, considering they’d had one of the most successful multi-million-selling albums of all time.

In the end, TLC’s 1991 contract with LaFace saw the trio receiving 56 cents per album sold, and even less for each single – which they then had to split three ways.

Even by the standards of most major label recording contracts at the time, this was recognised as total bullshit. The group were finally let out of their contract with Pebbitone and got to renegotiate their deal with LaFace Records after two years of awkward legal wrangling.

Though it’s fair to say the group has experienced setbacks and hard times – including the tragic passing of Lopes in 2002 – it’s a testament to the group’s legacy and courage that they have, and never will, back down.

With their first release in 15 years, the group unveiled their fifth and final album in 2017 – appropriately titled TLC – after a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign.

Although it’s their last release, Watkins and Thomas clarified that they’ll never “split up”, and that they will continue to perform together as TLC – maintaining the spirit of their incredible legacy for years to come.

Some things, luckily, never change.