Legal and Management

Celine Dion Loses $13M Dispute With Former Agent: 'I Feel Betrayed'

Celine Dion
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Celine Dion performs on the stage in concert at Cotai Strip Cotai Arena on June 29, 2018 in Macau, China. 

Commissioner says an "abundance of extrinsic evidence" supports ICM Partners' commission claim; Dion's attorney plans appeal and will "let a jury decide."

Celine Dion and her attorney are speaking out after California Labor Commission attorney David Gurley ruled against the “My Heart Will Go On” singer and ordered her to continue paying her former agent Rob Prinz of ICM Partners commissions on a $489 million touring contract he negotiated.

“We think they just got it wrong,” Dion’s attorney Zia Modabber of law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP told Billboard in a statement. Eleven months after the complaint was filed with the statewide Labor Commission -- the designated forum for client-agency disputes thanks to the 1970s era California Talent Agencies Act -- Gurley found that Prinz’s commission agreement with Dion’s former manager was binding. Modabber said the ruling “imposes on Celine a common agent’s agreement” that “wildly overpays Mr. Prinz for his contribution.”

Prinz’s lawyers, however, say the agent’s fee for his work -- approximately $11 million to $13 million paid out over 10 years -- was well established and backed up with emails, contract and oral agreements covering the three decades Prinz, Dion and her late husband and former manager René Angélil had worked together.

“This ruling leaves no doubt that Rob Prinz and ICM not only had a legally enforceable agreement to commission Ms. Dion’s AEG deal, but that, throughout her brilliant career, Rob represented her in an exemplary manner, culminating in an unprecedented touring and residency contract,” Rick Levy, general counsel for ICM Partners, said in a statement to Billboard.

The contract covering the AEG-produced Celine residency and Courage World Tour began in 2017 and plays through 2026 and includes $272 million in guaranteed income to Dion for 544 concerts in Las Vegas, $212 million for 198 touring shows and a $5 million signing bonus. On a per show basis, that's $500,000 per Las Vegas residency performance and $1,075,000 per touring show.

For Prinz’s work negotiating the contract with AEG, he was to be paid 1.5% commission for the Vegas shows and a 3% commission for her touring shows, excluding hometown concerts in Montreal. Celine and her representatives argue that Prinz and ICM overcharged her, using old commission agreements -- a charge Prinz denies.

“I have paid Mr. Prinz many millions of dollars over the years. And when this all started, my team made an extremely generous offer to pay him and ICM many more millions for years to come,” Dion told Billboard in a statement. “I’m not saying that Mr. Prinz did not do anything, but he’s taking much more credit for my career than he deserves. Mr. Prinz had never asked to be paid for 10 years for a few months’ work, and I never agreed to it.”

During the trial, Dion made similar statements to Gurley, who wrote in his ruling that he found some of Dion’s testimony “not credible.” In his ruling, Gurley described Prinz’s role in the performance contract negotiations as “implementing his ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy to leverage AEG and Live Nation” into a “bidding war” to “secure the maximum contract value for Dion.”

That's a bad analogy. In this industry, this kind of deal making is really called “two phone call agenting,” a practice many promoters say enables agents to do very little work in exchange for large commissions that many artists later regret agreeing to later don't want to pay.

After Friday’s decision, Dion and her lawyers doubled down and said they were planning to invoke their right to have the case adjudicated in the California Superior Court system.

“We will appeal this decision and have a jury decide what is right.” added Mr. Modabber.

Celine Dion's 16-Year Las Vegas Run Grossed $681M In Ticket Sales | Billboard News

Speaking with Billboard, entertainment litigator Ed McPherson, who is not involved with the case, notes that Gurley spent nine months drafting the decision and says he believes Gurley got it right.

“He’s the best lawyer at the commission and this decision comes down to the contract,” which specified that Prinz be paid out over 10 years in monthly payments after each performance takes place,” says McPherson. “You can't have an agent one day negotiate a half billion dollar deal for you and the next day say, ‘you're fired, so I don't have to pay you now.”

Prinz began representing Dion in 1989 and had previously negotiated his commission with Angélil who passed away in 2016. When Angélil became too sick to manage Dion, longtime collaborator Aldo Giampaolo took over management and agreed to continue paying Prinz the 1.5-3% commission structure approved by Angélil. Dion, however, says Prinz took advantage of the situation.

“When Rene was alive, he took care of my business and was always very fair with the people we worked with, and he taught me to be the same,” Dion told Billboard in a statement. “Because he wasn’t here to stand up for me at the hearing, I feel like Mr. Prinz and ICM took advantage with their demands for money and revealing confidential information about my AEG deal. I feel betrayed.”

Shortly after the AEG deal was signed in early 2017, Giampaolo was fired and replaced by David Platel, who had previously managed Dion alongside Angélil, and Denis Savage, a long-time Dion touring vet who had worked as a sound engineer and tour director on the singer's previous Power of Love tours. Around the same time, Dion's finances were audited by accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, who flagged Prinz's commission structure -- at least $7,500 per Vegas show and a minimum $32,250 per touring date -- as being “exorbitant” and “very high.”

In August 2017, Dion’s attorney Jamie Young told Prinz “that Dion wished to continue with Prinz as the agent, and wanted him to pursue new opportunities,” but explained that Dion’s team felt he had been “paid enough on the [AEG] Agreement, and Dion would no longer pay him for concert performances that had come to her for decades because of her superstar status.”

When it became clear Prinz wouldn’t accept a major reduction in his commission, Dion fired him and stopped paying his commission.

Prinz then filed a petition with the California Labor Commission, a state agency that settles employment disputes and is the designated forum for settling artist-agent disputes.

In ruling in Prinz's favor, Gurley argued that an "abundance of extrinsic evidence present here supports the Labor Commissioner’s conclusion that a valid talent agent contract was formed between the parties."

Labor and civil litigation attorney Michael Seville from the San Francisco law firm Seville Briggs tells Billboard that while Prinz was fired after only one year into the agreement, "the value of his work was not in the month-to-month, day-to-day management of the artist but was mostly completed by negotiating and detailing the terms of the overall contract” prior to kicking off her 2017 tour and residency schedule.

Gurley wrote that one major deciding factor in the case was that Dion had paid Prinz his rate for the first year and half of his tour. Dion’s attorneys first argued that the payments were part of a new contract that never was finalized, then Dion apparently contradicted her team when she testified that “Prinz never agreed to a new contract and Dion paid him ‘to be nice.’”

McPherson adds that it’s not uncommon for an artist to change management and suddenly start questioning the financial commitments made by the previous regime.

“Many artists will say, ‘I've been doing this for a long time and we negotiated a deal a long time ago, why should I continue to pay him?” McPherson says. “But there are plenty of written agreements in this case, and oral agreements in between those written agreements. And it was pretty easy to tell what percentage commission Prinz was owed.”