Ownership of Nirvana Part Two

Posted: January 12, 2013 in Unreleased n' Posthumous Nirvana

Kurt’s death set in motion the next spell of Nirvana as a legal entity rather than a living band; the Nirvana Limited Liability Company. Krist’s response to the law suit brought by Courtney Love in May 2001 stated that it took three years to negotiate the precise legal status of Nirvana L.L.C. and that Courtney retained full control over Kurt Cobain’s publishing share alongside use of his image and name. In amidst this, on July 2, 1996 an amendment to Nirvana’s contract with DGC came into effect requiring them to handover a Nirvana archive box set by June 2001.

June arrived…And with it, the infamous court case with Courtney asking that Nirvana L.L.C. be dissolved claiming that Dave and Krist were repeatedly block-voting against her in all matters related to Nirvana; that she’d been railroaded into the arrangement; and that You Know You’re Right shouldn’t be included on the planned box set. She received an injunction preventing that song’s release by the end of the month. A further effort in October to gain full control for the estate of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana’s masters led to Dave and Krist counter-suing in December — which led to Cobain’s mother weighing in on Courtney’s side of the debate. A ruling in April 2002 refused Krist and Dave’s request that Courtney undergo psychiatric evaluation and everything rolled toward the December court date…And was resolved in September.

On the record company side, the DGC label was folded into the reorganisation of Universal Music Group from 1999 with its autonomous status removed. Geffen and A&M became part of Interscope and its subsequent travails are beyond the scope of this chat. At the turn of the millennium though the status of the label was unclear, personnel were shifting so relationships were lost — Courtney Love’s legal case was fair in stating things were uncertain.

Nirvana’s story became increasingly entangled with larger wars. Courtney was involved in a case accusing Universal of corrupt business practices in tying artists to contracts longer than those signed by other employees. That was part of a wider effort known as the Recording Artists Coalition to try to overturn these kinds of contracts. She was simultaneously being sued by Universal from 2000 onward for failure to deliver the required five Hole albums and had countersued in March 2001 claiming that Universal had defrauded Hole. It concluded with the label agreeing to free Hole from their contract, to return rights to unreleased Hole music to her. In return she agreed to give Universal a cut of revenue from subsequent releases, removed restrictions on reissuing previously released Hole material…And let Universal release the subsequent Nirvana archive projects as part of the Nirvana L.L.C. settlement.

Since then, things have become ever more tangled and ever more arcane.

Courtney’s control over Kurt Cobain’s publishing rights meant she was entitled to go ahead, in April 2006, with the sale of 25% of those rights to Primary Wave Music Publishing, who would seek out potential uses of Kurt Cobain’s music (that figure subsequently seems to have hit 50% either through a further agreement or initial misreporting.) The deal also included complete rights to distribute Nirvana’s music. A court case in 2008 included a document stating the sale was for $19.5m not the wild estimates ranging up to $50m. The results weren’t great for Primary Wave with estimates in early 2009 being that use of Nirvana’s music had resulted in only $2.3m in royalties at that point in time. It doesn’t seem an entirely happy marriage given the 2012 spat over Courtney’s annoyance at Smells Like Teen Spirit being used in The Muppets’ new movie — something agreed by Primary Wave and approved by Dave and Krist. Courtney subsequently claimed she hadn’t signed over ‘synchronisation rights’ —money paid related to the combination of music with visual images (i.e., film, TV, computer games.)

Courtney received a substantial advance on the Nirvana greatest hits release in 2002 and also on the publication of Kurt Cobain’s Journals — then was subsequently sued by the law firm who had represented her to secure this. Hendricks & Lewis demanded $340K in unpaid fees on top of the cool $1.15m they’d earned representing Courtney throughout the earlier Nirvana disputes. This case was settled in Autumn of 2007. A further law suit was settled in late 2010 related to the rights to Cobain’s music. The accounting firm, London & Co. claimed at the start of their case in July 2008 Courtney had agreed to pay them 5% of any earnings from The End of Music LLC and therefore claimed a share of the sale to Primary Wave.

The next twist came this year as it turned out that from sometime in 2010 Courtney handed over control of her share of Kurt Cobain’s estate to Frances Bean Cobain in return for a loan from the money that had accrued in Frances’ trust fund; this came after a turbulent time in which Frances got a restraining order against her mum and had Kurt’s mother and sister named her legal guardians until she reached age eighteen. As far as can be told this hasn’t made any waves in terms of new releases or deviations from established anniversary plans.

Meanwhile, in late 2012, control over Virgin Music Publishing passed to BMG. Sony bought EMI Music Publishing but was made to sell various catalogues of songs as a condition of the sale. Again, it makes little difference beyond being another piece of the endless folding and unfurling of music companies, legal ownership, percentage shares and business obscurity building up around the band as it moves further and further away from a living breathing entity and deeper into the realm of paper concepts.

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