HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Success in music can be a fairy tale come true.
Only for some, it can be less like "Cinderella" than one of those stories about wishes that backfire.
Joseph Robinson Jr. and Leland Robinson of Englewood, N.J., the heirs of the Sugar Hill label, are the latest music industry heavyweights undone by their own Midas touch -- courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service. Both were sentenced Thursday in a $1.2 million failure-to-file taxes case to three years' probation apiece, a combined total of $24,000 in fines and other penalties.
Also last week, Mary J. Blige, the R&B star famous for "No More Drama" and "Be Without You," was hit with a tax lien because of the $3.4 million she owes to the government. Hip-hopper Lauryn Hill, formerly of The Fugees, was sentenced earlier this month to serve three months in federal prison for failure to file to the IRS, to the tune of $1 million (she paid up the bulk before sentencing).
It's an age-old question: Why do so many music people have so much trouble with money?
Bad advice, bad habits, lack of fairness in the music industry itself -- all have gotten the blame. "The problem is that I don't have the right people in the right places doing the right things," Ms. Blige said in a published report last May. In an open letter last month, Ms. Hill blamed "an old conflict between art and commerce. ... I've been fighting for existential and economic freedom." At his sentencing Thursday, Leland Robinson said he was "not a criminal," while being "totally remorseful ... I take full responsibility for my actions."
Perhaps the real culprit is a culture that showers riches on people too young or inexperienced to manage them, said Sirius XM radio host Ed Lover, who became well-known in hip-hop circles through his long stint as a DJ and a VJ on MTV. "When you don't come from money, you have no one to teach you about money," he said.
Take the matter of withholding taxes. In the music industry, stars usually get their money upfront and in full. If you don't know about withholding -- or you don't care about the money you'll be owing the government next year -- it's easy to fall into a "sufficient unto the day" attitude.
"In the entertainment business, they usually don't pay taxes out of your check," Lover said. "There's no withholding at all. If a record label owes you $50,000 or $60,000, you're going to get a $50,000 or $60,000 check."
Similarly, artists who are paid cash for a live performance often assume that's that -- they don't realize that the venue reports the salary to the IRS, which will demand taxes on it.
And that's just the beginning. Stars, if they're not careful, are liable to have expenses they didn't bargain for. There's the entourage of employees, personal assistants, friends, bodyguards and hangers-on, each one a paycheck. Others come to grief through "investment opportunities": real estate, restaurants, any of which can easily misfire. Above all, there is the pressure for conspicuous consumption, common to stardom, and particularly acute in the hip-hop world: Fancy cars, fancy cribs, fancy jewelry, expensive brands are all part of the mystique.
"There's a lot of flash and cash, there's a lot of overspending, and a ridiculous kind of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, so to speak," Lover said.
Tax problems among music people are not limited to hip-hop. They're something that cuts across genres, and generations. Willie Nelson, MC Hammer, Lionel Richie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ja Rule, Deborah Harry, Chuck Berry, Flo Rida and the late Luciano Pavarotti are just some of the big names who've gotten into trouble with the tax collectors.
"Sometimes it's a case of having the wrong people around you," said Ben E. King, the soul star ("Stand by Me," "There Goes My Baby").
He was lucky. Like many music celebrities, he came to stardom young -- and ignorant about money matters. Unlike many, he got himself a good personal accountant early on. "He was the greatest of the great, he gave me the best advice," Mr. King said. "Other than that, the fact that the people at Atlantic Records were very protective: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Jerry Wexler. They were all nice people. Sometimes when they knew you didn't know anything, they would say, 'I'm not going to beat you up.' They kept me from going under."
In his 50-plus years in the business, Mr. King has been audited, but he's never gotten into serious trouble with the IRS. Others have been less fortunate. There are a lot of reasons that music stars come to grief in money matters, but the chief one, said financial consultant Tom Orecchio, is what he calls the "lottery syndrome."
"If someone is not used to having money, and is suddenly responsible for a large amount of money, it's difficult to budget that," said Mr. Orecchio, co-owner of Modera Wealth Management, which helps high-net-worth individuals manage their cash flow.
The solution? Obviously, get a good accountant the minute you hit pay dirt. That in itself isn't enough. Too many artists find one person and put their entire trust in him: an invitation for a clever scam artist to skim off the top. "Artists want to work on the art," said Sirius XM host Vin Scelsa. "They want somebody else to buy the groceries and pay the bills."
The only real solution is to have a number of independent advisers, who can provide oversight to each other, said Mr. Orecchio. And to keep on top of things yourself.
"You need checks and balances," Mr. Orecchio said. "Maybe one's an accountant, one's an attorney, one's a financial adviser. It's a lot harder to get three people to agree to steal if they all come from different sources."