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Universal’s $30million+ recordings deal with Prince estate axed

By | Published on Friday 14 July 2017


Roll up, roll up, who wants the rights to distribute the Prince recordings catalogue? You get access to the vaults! You get all of the late musician’s self-released albums! And you get the hits too! Well, those hits that aren’t already promised to Warner Music via a 2014 agreement that no one can really get their heads around, meaning you may or may not have access to this record and that record, let alone that record. No one really seems too sure.

A judge has rescinded the $30 million+ deal done between Universal Music and the Prince estate over the popstar’s recordings catalogue. Both the mega-major and the bank administrating the estate had requested that the deal be axed, though not all of Prince’s heirs were on board with that idea, and the lawyer who negotiated the deal between Universal and the estate in the first place reckoned it should be enforced.

As previously reported, Universal secured the rights to represent Prince’s recording, publishing and merchandising rights via three separate multi-million dollar deals. However, the former deal only covered those recordings not already committed to Warner Music via a 2014 agreement the musician signed before his untimely death last year.

After the deals had been done, Universal started to express concern that some of the hit recordings it thought it would get to represent – now or in the near future – were already committed to Warner by the 2014 contract, which it hadn’t actually seen. By this point the estate was being run and advised by different bankers and industry experts, and they passed on Universal’s concerns to the court overseeing Prince’s affairs.

Ultimately Warner was told to share its contract with Universal so that its lawyers could work out whether there was indeed any clash between the two record company’s deals. The legal team’s conclusion was that the 2014 deal was too confusing to say for sure. But, given the confusion, Universal said that it would now definitely like to cancel its recordings deal and get its $30 million+ back, to avoid years of messy litigation as it, Warner and the estate tried to work out who controls what through the courts.

Yesterday the judge overseeing the Prince estate complied, rescinding the recordings deal. He said that, while he was “reluctant” to grant a recession of the estate’s previous agreement with Universal, “the court believes that the other option of long and potentially expensive litigation while tying up the music rights owned by the estate makes the other option more treacherous”.

The decision doesn’t affect Universal’s deals over Prince’s publishing and merch rights, but does mean the recordings catalogue – ie the vaults, the later albums, and the earlier hits Warner doesn’t control – is now back on the block. Though, given the continued confusion over that 2014 contract, it will be interesting to see if anyone other than Warner Music will want to do the deal. If not, Warner will presumably be able to secure the rights with a much smaller commitment than $30 million.