Joe Elliott says Def Leppard 'never saw a penny' of profit during their early years

Joe Elliott performs onstage at The Wiltern on January 24, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Lester Cohen | WireImage | Getty Images
Joe Elliott performs onstage at The Wiltern on January 24, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

In the 1980's, Def Leppard lived the dream. The band hit it big with albums like 1983's "Pyromania" and 1987's "Hysteria," including such memorable songs as "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Photograph." They spent years on tour, playing packed houses across the globe.

But in its early years, the band struggled. "Money was tight until about 1983," lead singer Joe Elliott recently told Reuters. "We had signed a record deal in '79, but that all that money went into running the band." Elliott says they earned around £30 per week ($39.40), which "wasn't even enough to buy stage clothes."

When Def Leppard started touring the U.S. as an opener for larger acts, they traveled in a station wagon and shared rooms in budget hotels. "All the profit from the shows went into getting a tour bus, so we never saw a penny," Elliott says.

Eventually, things turned around and they had a hit with "Pyromania." Released in January of 1983, it went platinum just three months later. By October of 1984, the album had sold over six million copies.

Since they were finally making money, "we were able to pay off our debts," Elliott says. "And when you spread that over seven years, it only worked out to a decent income, probably less than your average doctor. It was seven years of poverty and borrowing off our parents."

Def Leppard's financial drama didn't end there. Around 2012, the band entered into a public dispute with their former record label, Universal Music Group. They claimed that Universal low-balled them on the share they'd earn from digital copies of their songs, maintaining that they should earn the same amount they would off a physical CD sale.

And because Def Leppard had previously negotiated a deal with that allowed them final approval over how their music is used and sold, they were able to withhold the master copies of their songs, preventing the label from selling or licensing digital copies at all.

However, the fight wasn't entirely about money, Elliott says. "It's about principle," he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. "It's a well-known fact: Artists throughout the years have always been shafted by record companies."

According to Elliott, the band shook on a deal with Universal that was later rejected by someone higher up in the company. "To an Englishman, when you shake hands, it's a binding contract, and Universal reneged on it," he says. "So we dug in our heels and said, 'We're gonna say a blanket no to anything that you ask for.'"

Def Leppard eventually worked out a deal with Universal and made their catalog available on all major streaming services in January 2018.

"Having embraced every other format with open arms, especially and more recently the reemergence of vinyl, we're now going to be available to everyone everywhere and honestly, it's as exciting as the original releases were," Elliott told Billboard.

Don't miss: Billy Joel's first big splurge cost $50,000 but was completely 'worth it'

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!