Prince's Estate Weighs Deals With Publishers, PROs for Artist's Lucrative Catalog

Courtesy Photo
Prince photographed in 2013.

Sources say the major publishers — Sony/ATV, Warner/Chappell and UMPG — are vying to be global administrator of Prince’s catalog, currently done in-house.

With Charles Koppelman and Londell McMillan now ensconced as the musical advisers to Bremer Trust, the temporary administrator of the Prince estate, the two are now reviewing a flood of opportunities from major labels, major publishers, and performance rights organizations, sources say.

While the two assess the Prince assets for long-term exploitation, the easiest deals to be made now include what Prince music to released duing the holiday shopping season; pacting a global deal to serve as administrator to the publishing catalog, which is owned outright by the Prince estate; possibly issuing a comprehensive greatest hits album for the fall; cutting a deal with a performance rights organization; and possibly making the Prince catalog available to all streaming services, not just Jay Z's Tidal. Koppelman declined to comment and McMillan couldn't be reached for comment.

Before his death, Prince and his staff managed his own publishing catalog, taking over the publisher's role after a contract ended with Universal Music Publishing Group back in 2013.

As for performance licensing, Prince withdrew from ASCAP effective Jan. 1 2015, but his music is still available from that PRO for licenses that were in effect as of that date. Here is the wording that ASCAP uses on Prince songs in its ACE database: "This work has been removed from the ASCAP Repertory except with respect to final written license agreements in effect on the following date(s) (corresponding to each interest referenced above): 01/01/2015." ASCAP says that some of those licenses-in-effect expire at the end of this year, while others will continue in effect for several years. So whatever PRO signs a deal, will even get the Prince catalog for ASCAP licenses expiring at the end of this year too, like the one with Radio Music Licensing Committee.

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Beyond acting within a PRO, sources say that the estate is seeking a publishing administrator for a long-term contract that could be as long as 5-10 years. If they appoint a global administrator, the estate could be looking at advances in the range of $1 million-$2 million a year. An administrator would make it easier for the estate to manage, but they may be able to get an even larger advance if they bifurcate the catalog in a U.S versus non-U.S. set-up, sources speculate.

While some say that Sony/ATV Music Publishing may have the inside track -- Koppelman and Sony/ATV chairman and CEO Martin Bandier were partners for years as part of SBK, the label and publishing company they and Stephen Sid sold to EMI -- sources say that Warner/Chappell's Jon Platt and Universal Music Publishing Group's Jody Gerson are also trying to land the deal. Representatives for the three majors declined comment.

If Warner/Chappell were to land the deal that would put the most lucrative part of the Prince catalog for both publishing and master recordings under one roof, the Warner Music Group. In 2014, the Warner Music Group gave Prince ownership of his U.S. master recordings, through negotiation, instead of the two sides pursuing litigation to see if a typical major label recording contract's insertion of a work-for-hire clause would be recognized in court.

(In a revision of U.S. Copyright Law passed in 1976, the ownership of works created after 1978, including compositions and master recordings, can revert ownership to the original creator after the expiration of 35 years, or 2013 for albums that came out in 1978. However, the law excludes ownership reversion in works that were created under works-for-hire contracts, but many argued that record label work-for-hire clauses wouldn't stand-up to court scrutiny, and so far the labels have been reluctant to test that in court.)

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As part of the deal that gave Prince U.S. ownership of his master recordings, WMG gets full control of issuing the albums globally for the term of copyright. In exchange -- even though copyright termination and reversion only exists in U.S. law -- Prince received higher royalty rates around the globe. According to sources, those royalty rates were around 27 percent for CDs, vinyl and downloads and about 37 percent for streaming.

Since his death in April, Prince's catalog has sold 1.93 million albums, as well as 5 million song downloads, with the Warner Bros. catalog accounting for 94 percent of sales. Beyond the WB catalog, Prince has a vast amount of recorded-but-unreleased music plus most of his own NPG catalog, which is currently unavailable except for Tidal (for streaming). His last two albums, Hit n Run Phase One and Hit n Run Phase Two, were released on CD through Tidal/Universal Music Group, while previous titles Musicology and Planet Earth were part of his Columbia deal.

While the estate may try to cut a deal for the unreleased music and the NPG catalog, Warner Bros. likely has a claim on the music Prince recorded while under contract to the label. In any event, sources speculate that whatever happens with that music, the Prince estate and its music business maestros of Koppleman and McMillan probably haven't had enough time to evaluate and make ready a commercial release this year. That's why the estate is probably looking at a new greatest hits package.

The benefits of doing so is that at least half the Prince albums sold so far this year have come from those types of compilations -- The Very Best of Prince, with 616,000 scanned; Ultimate, with 126,000 scanned; The Hits/B-Sides, with 122,000 scanned; The Hits, with 16,000; and The Hits 2, with 14,000 units. While it shows that his fans still have an appetite for compilations, some may say issuing yet another best-of collection could be one too many. But so far some fans and critics say that a comprehensive Prince package is still needed because the other ones miss some essential tracks. Such an album, especially if it can be spiced up with a track of two of unreleased Prince music, could prove a big seller for the holiday selling season.

Following the holidays, expect Prince's estate to turn its attention to assessing the artist's unreleased works and exploring other income streams.