Legal and Management

Chris Cornell's Widow Sues Soundgarden for Withholding Royalties

Vicky Cornell
Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Vicky Cornell attends The New York Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Children's 2018 Food & Wine Gala at The Metropolitan Club on Nov. 6, 2018 in New York City.

Vicky Cornell claims the band is retaliating over her refusal to provide several of the late frontman's unreleased sound recordings for a new album.

The opening salvo in an unfolding legal battle between the widow of late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell and his former bandmates was officially launched Monday (Dec. 9).

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Florida, Vicky Cornell has accused surviving Soundgarden band members Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron and Hunter Benedict Shepherd -- along with the band’s longtime business manager Rit Venerus -- of attempting to "strong-arm" her into turning over seven unreleased audio recordings Chris Cornell made prior to his death by withholding royalties owed to his estate, of which she is the personal representative. But Vicky Cornell says the band has no legal rights to the recordings, which she claims were “solely authored” by Chris Cornell and bequeathed to his estate for her and their children’s benefit.

“Through this action, Vicky seeks to vindicate her late-husband’s rights in the sound recordings that he created, to recover the substantial sums of money and personal property that are being unlawfully withheld by Venerus and the band, and to emphatically answer the lyrical question her husband raised about his former bandmates, ‘how much more can they get?’ NOTHING,” the complaint reads.

Billboard reached out to an attorney for Soundgarden for comment but had not heard back by press time.

In the suit, Vicky Cornell contends that the surviving band members -- who are organized under a legal partnership in the state of Washington -- reached out to her in July 2017 about using Chris Cornell's unreleased recordings in a new Soundgarden studio album. According to Vicky Cornell, she said she would be glad to provide the recordings under two main conditions: that Chris Cornell's longtime “trusted producer” be involved in the process and that she be apprised of the album’s marketing strategy.

Vicky Cornell claims that while the band initially agreed to these conditions, after preliminary discussions with Chris Cornell's producer they reneged, contending that the recordings were the sole property of the Soundgarden partnership and that the surviving band members were entitled to “unilaterally dictate” how they were exploited. She says the band has since refused to engage in any “meaningful discussions” around the unreleased recordings and that in retaliation, they have withheld Cornell’s share of royalties totaling “hundreds of thousands” of dollars, including monies owed from the group’s 2019 Live From the Artists Den album that was recorded with Chris Cornell in 2013.

"It is outrageous conduct that the band would withhold monies that are rightfully payable to Chris' estate, which goes to Vicky and Chris' children," Vicky's attorney Martin Singer tells Billboard, "simply because she wouldn't capitulate to their unreasonable demands on the sound recording when she has been completely reasonable in trying to work this out with them since Chris died."

The complaint further states that while the band has claimed ownership of the unreleased recordings, they have thus far failed to furnish any legal documentation supporting those assertions. The suit cites a March 2013 email written by Chris Cornell in which the late frontman asserted his unwillingness to enter a legal partnership with his bandmates, saying he would no longer allow others to, in the words of the complaint, “disproportionately profit from his creative labors.”

"The Partnership’s Demand Letter assumes, wrongfully, that Chris agreed that all of his creations should be treated as Partnership property,” the complaint continues. “However, Chris’ last word on the matter was a blistering repudiation, and he made a point of separating his works from the Band’s.”

To this end, the complaint notes that even during his years with Soundgarden, Chris Cornell created numerous solo recordings that he kept separate from the band’s output.

Financial matters aside, the complaint is also instructive in painting a portrait of the bad blood that has been brewing between Vicky Cornell and the surviving members of Soundgarden since Chris Cornell's death in May 2017. In addition to accusing Thayil, Cameron and Shepherd of failing to provide emotional support to Vicky and Chris Cornell's family in the wake of his passing, she alleges that the bandmates have “menaced” them with “false media statements intended to rile the cyberstalkers who have been making vile online accusations,” including Chris Cornell's real-life stalker Jessica Robbins, who was arrested outside the band's 2016 concert in Louisville, Kentucky and has since been released from federal prison.

“The band has broadcast public misinformation without regard for intensifying the hateful targeting of Chris’ family,” the complaint reads, before highlighting media interviews in which Thayil states that “other parties” are the reason for the holdup of the unreleased material. “By knowingly imperiling Chris’ family with such callous cruelty,” it continues, “the former band members have revealed their monstrous avarice for the sound recordings which they neither created nor own.”

Vicky Cornell is asking for actual and compensatory damages; a declaration that she is the sole and exclusive owner of the unreleased recordings; a decree granting her access to the band and Venerus’ books and records and an accounting of all revenue earned from merchandise and recordings. She is also seeking an order granting her permission to inspect all storage units that contain Chris Cornell's personal belongings and/or an accounting of those items to his estate, disgorgement of all revenue “wrongfully withheld” by the defendants and the imposition of a constructive trust on the estate’s share of all revenue and property being withheld.

Ron Laffitte, the manager of the Chris Cornell Estate and the artist's former manager, said this lawsuit was a "painful last resort" for the estate and Vicky Cornell. 

"Chris' legacy is my priority," Laffitte said in a statement. "Vicky and his kids were always the most important thing to him. I will continue to strive to do what’s right by Chris both professionally and personally."

Chris Cornell married Vicky in 2004 and had two children with her. Vicky Cornell claims she is also the primary source of support for Chris Cornell's daughter from a previous marriage.

Soundgarden was formed in Seattle in 1984 by Chris Cornell, Thayil and original bassist Hiro Yamamoto, who departed the band in 1989. The classic 1990s lineup of Chris Cornell, Thayil, Cameron and Shepherd put out the band’s biggest hits, including the seminal grunge albums Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. Following the band's breakup in 1997, Cornell released several solo albums and formed the short-lived "supergroup" Audioslave with Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk. In 2010 Soundgarden reformed and later released the band's final studio album, King Animal. The remaining members disbanded following Cornell’s suicide in 2017.