With a net worth of $340 million, James Hetfield ranks as one of the richest rockers of all time. For anyone familiar with the huge success his band, Metallica, have achieved over the past few decades, this probably comes as little surprise. Anyone less familiar with his history is probably wondering how such a giant number came to be attached to someone who’s spent the best part of the last 4 decades strumming a guitar.
The Early Days
The secret to becoming a multi-millionaire before you’re 60? Start young. In Hetfield’s case, this involved learning to play the piano at 9, the drums shortly after, and the guitar at 14. By the time he was in his mid-teens, Hetfield was practicing his craft with various bands, including Obsession and Leather Charm, the direct forerunner to Metallica.
Mainstream Success with Metallica
Following the disbandment of Leather Charm, Hetfield began to pull together the band that would turn into Metallica. After a few false starts, the final line up became Hetfield (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), Lars Ulrich (drums), Dave Mustaine (lead guitar), and Cliff Burton (bass). In 1983, Mustaine was dropped from the band after his drinking caused increasing tensions between him and Hetfield. He was replaced by Kirk Hammett, then the lead guitarist from the thrash metal band Exodus.
Within a short time of the band forming, they became a huge underground hit, winning some superlative praise from critics in the process. Their third album, Master of Puppets (1986), is considered to be one of the most influential heavy metal albums of all time, while their fifth studio album, Metallica (1991), succeeded in propelling the band from the underground to the mainstream, securing a huge new fanbase and a level of commercial success that translated into over 16 million album sales in the US alone.
Sales, Sales, Sales
Concert tours may generate massive returns, but album sales are a huge indicator of both a band's success and its member’s wealth. A quick scan through the sales figures for Metallica’s albums reveals much about the source of Hetfield’s giant fortune.
- Kill “Em All (1983). Global Sales: 8 510 000
- Ride The Lightning (1984. Global Sales: 11 740 000
- Master of Puppets. Global Sales: 13 980 000
- …And Justice For All (1988). Global Sales: 15 840 000
- Metallica (1988). Global Sales: 15 840 000
- Load (1996). Global Sales: 11 490 000
- Reload (1997). Global Sales: 8 940 000
- Garage Inc (1998). Global Sales: 645 000 000
- St. Anger (2003). Global Sales: 5 050 000
- Death Magnetic (2008). Global Sales: 5 330 000
- Hardwired… To Destruct (2016). Global Sales: 3 140 000
Combine studio album sales with those of the band’s various compilations, live albums and “best offs’, and you’re looking at more than 125 million albums sold worldwide, with over 65 million of those in the United States alone. End result? A very happy record label and a very wealthy band.
Napster’s Biggest Threat
In the early 2000s, the music scene changed forever when Napster introduced the concept of peer-to-peer file sharing. Musicians who could once have relied on album sales to see them through to a ripe old age were now facing one of their biggest ever threats. If people could enjoy their music for free, who exactly was going to buy their albums?
Fortunately for struggling artists, bands like Metallica were willing to take a stand and make it known that if people wanted to listen to their music, they were going to have to pay for the privilege. After launching a successful legal bid against Napster, Metallica ensured both the eventual downfall of the company and their continued royalty rights to their back catalog.
Simply The Best
You don’t get to enjoy the kind of wealth Hetfield has without at least a little talent. Fortunately, Hetfield has it in spades. His skills as a guitarist have earned him the title of Rolling Stone’s 87th greatest guitarist of all time and places in Joel McIver's book The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists, Hit Parader’s list of the 100 Greatest Metal Vocalists of All Time, and Guitar World’s The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists. His work with Metallica, meanwhile, has been honored with nine Grammy Awards and a slew of other awards and distinctions.
Musicians are notorious for their fast lifestyles. The number of talented artists that have squandered their health and wealth on drugs and alcohol makes for grim reading. Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain – all supremely talented individuals who either died too early or lived out their lives in poverty as a result of their addictions.
While Hetfield hasn’t been immune to the lure of certain substances (prescribed or otherwise), he managed to tackle the problem before it took its toll. Hetfield, who’s has been involved in a rehab program since 2002, now lives a quiet life in Vail, Colorado (his wife’s hometown) and describes himself as a “reborn straight edge”, a tribute to his success in resisting the many temptations that are so often part and parcel of his chosen profession.
Mixing it Up
Let’s be clear, the bulk of Hetfield’s wealth comes from his work with Metallica. His role with the band extends to writing most of their lyrics and coordinating their arrangements; as a result, he pockets a large amount of the income from album sales, as well as the royalties from radio play and other artist’s cover versions.
That said, he hasn’t hesitated at using his celebrity status to add a few more dollars to his vast fortune (and have a fine old time on the set of various TV shows in the process). While the salary he draws from his acting gigs doesn’t compare with what he earns as one part of Metallica, his occasional TV appearances have done a great job of keeping his name in the public domain during Metallica’s sporadic downtimes.
Past roles include voicing Dragon 1 in Dave the Barbarian (2004) and Water Polo coach in American Dad! (2016), narrating The Hunt (2014), appearing as himself on The Simpsons (2006), Time Warp (2009), and Billions (2016), and, most recently, voicing the recurring character of Wolfgang in Skylanders Academy (2016-present)
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Written by Bill Vix
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