Court Voids Universal $31 Million Deal With Prince Estate

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NCLR
Prince performs during the 2007 NCLR ALMA Awards held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on June 1, 2007 in Pasadena, Calif.

UMG still controls the rights to administer Prince’s publishing worldwide, as well as to make his merchandise.

Universal Music Group will get its $31 million back on a licensing deal with the Prince estate, according to a court order issued Thursday.

After buying the rights to a package of Prince’s recorded music -- including his “vault” of unreleased music and an array of other albums -- in late January, a deal that had been structured as an advance on future royalties, a judge granted the estate administrator’s motion to void the deal due to ambiguity surrounding whether the rights conflicted with Warner Music Group’s rights.

The move raises the question of whether the estate’s former advisors, L. Londell McMillan and Charles Koppelman, will keep the combined 10% commission they earned on the deal. McMillan, who worked as Prince’s attorney and business partner for more than a decade and currently serves as a business advisor to three of Prince’s half-sibling heirs, had been pushing both UMG and the court to preserve the deal in recent weeks, trying to assure UMG executives on a call last month that they would be able to exercise the rights they’d agreed to purchase.

But UMG continued to press for a refund, threatening legal action and accusing McMillan of "damaging" the record label's relationship with the estate by continuing to contact the label's executives. A lawyer for McMillan then filed a letter to the judge accusing the estate's administrator, Comerica Bank & Trust, of trying to "undermine and smear his reputation" by not supporting the deal, and arguing that while "yes, UMG's counsel has suggested that Mr. McMillan not contact UMG business people directly...he is not required to take direction from UMG's counsel."

The judge noted that while the court was “reluctant” to grant the rescission, “the other option of long and potentially expensive litigation" while tying up the estate’s music rights is “more treacherous.”

“It has been suggested that UMG is bluffing and they really wouldn't file suit,” the judge's order reads, but after UMG’s attorneys were permitted to review WMG’s agreements and reiterated their concerns in a letter June 26, “this does not appear to be a bluff.”

McMillan, who had led the negotiation of the deal, tells Billboard that he was "pleased that the matter is resolved" and respected the court's decision, which he noted did not find any wrongdoing on his part.

"I would have chosen otherwise and would've released music either with UMG or independently, as Prince did," McMillan said. "There was no wrongdoing on our end. We stand by our work, as Bremer [the estate's former administrator] and their lawyers did on this matter."

UMG still controls the rights to administer Prince’s publishing worldwide, as well as to make his merchandise.

The estate can now shop the recorded-music rights to another buyer, though they will likely fetch less than $31 million.

Potential buyers include WMG, which released Prince’s first 18 albums and also has rights to some of the material in the “vault.”

In a joint statement, UMG and the Prince estate said they welcomed the court's approval of their "amicable resolution" and looked forward to "continuing to work closely together on Prince's music publishing and merchandise to ensure that we deliver the very best experiences to Prince fans around the world."