Prince Legal Moves: Tidal Claim Progresses, Bank Pushes Back On Heirs' Accusations of Tribute-Concert Mismanagement
Tuesday was a busy day for Bremer Trust.
The bank that has administered Prince's multimillion-dollar estate since his death in April fired back against two of the superstar's likely heirs, who have alleged that Bremer-appointed experts mismanaged an October tribute concert and who want to hold the bank responsible. That same day, Bremer lost a battle with the streaming service Tidal, as Judge Kevin W. Eide of the Carver County District Court ruled that its owner, the Jay Z backed company Roc Nation, could make a claim against the estate for an advance it had allegedly given Prince in exchange for distribution rights to his final recordings.
In documents filed with the court, Bremer disputed allegations by Prince's sister Tyka Nelson and his half-brother Omarr Baker that veteran entertainment attorneys L. Londell McMillan and Charles Koppelman botched the tribute, and that McMillan held on to profits the heirs were guaranteed to receive. Bremer also said that in any case it was not liable for the actions of McMillan or Koppelman. The two experts were designated by the estate to help monetize Prince's entertainment assets and have entered a number of licensing agreements on its behalf.
Although Comerica Bank and Trust N.A. takes over the management of the estate duties today as permanent representative, Bremer, which was appointed by the court to temporarily administer Prince's estate since shortly after his death but asked not to continue on permanently once its appointment ended, has not yet been discharged from its responsibilities. Nelson and Baker want the court to delay Bremer's discharge until their questions concerning the tribute are resolved and until they receive a more complete accounting of the estate's assets, which may be worth as much as $300 million.
THE TIDAL CLAIM
Roc Nation's claim against the estate is based on an agreement with Prince's companies, NPG Records and NPG Publishing, stating that the musician had received an advance with the understanding that he would deliver four albums to be streamed on Tidal. Two of these albums, Hit and Run: Phase 1 and Hit and Run: Phase 2, were released exclusively on the streaming platform before Prince's death.
Roc Nation first contacted Bremer last May, seeking to administer Prince's musical assets and saying Prince had granted Tidal streaming rights to his catalog through NPG, though copies of such agreements were never produced, according to Judge Eide. Roc Nation did present the contract for the four-album distribution deal, however, and told Bremer that it had a claim based on this agreement.
The bank refused to acknowledge Roc Nation's claim, saying the company hadn't followed proper probate procedures. Roc Nation challenged Bremer's decision, and also demanded the right to scrutinize any licensing agreements for Prince's music that the estate had negotiated, saying Tidal had exclusive streaming rights that might be jeopardized by these contracts. Bremer, meanwhile, filed a federal suit alleging that Tidal, which had been streaming Prince's catalog all year, had done so without permission, a matter that's still pending.
Judge Eide refused to allow Roc Nation to examine any confidential business agreements the estate had entered into regarding Prince's music, but said the four-album deal gave it a claim against the estate, though he made no ruling on the merits of that claim.
“While these are not traditional claims against an estate, as all parties are aware, little about this matter is traditional,” the judge said.
It's unclear what effect the ongoing federal dispute between Tidal and the estate over Prince's streaming rights may have on a possible deal between the estate and streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music that, as sources told Billboard in January, is expected to close in time for this year’s Grammy Awards.
THE TRIBUTE CONCERT
Originally planned for the new U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the tribute concert in question was later moved to the smaller Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul and held on Oct. 13. Along the way, some performers were announced before they were confirmed, and other performers dropped out along the way.
The heirs were apparently offered a guaranteed payment from the tribute proceeds. Though nearly all monetary figures have been redacted from court documents, at a court hearing on Jan. 12, Steven H. Silton, an attorney for Nelson and Baker, mentioned a guarantee of $7 million. Judge Eide immediately cautioned Silton that he was discussing confidential matters in open court.
In its brief, Bremer says the heirs themselves shared the blame for any alleged mismanagement because they were “intimately” involved with the planning and execution of the concert from the start. The idea for a tribute originated with Prince's family members, according to Bremer, and Tyka Nelson herself made the initial announcement. “The special administrator made it clear that it was not in the concert promoting business, and did not desire to take an active role in the endeavor,” according to the brief.
Bremer says Prince's siblings were split on how to go about organizing the tribute, and requested advice from the bank, which says it reiterated its unwillingness to play a major role and handed the task off to Koppelman and McMillan. When the siblings still could not decide unanimously between two competing proposals, the estate's experts selected Jobu Presents.
In August, Jobu stopped working on the concert, though its reasons for doing so were redacted from the court document. Jobu then demanded the return of payments it had made to the estate, and Bremer says it eventually did so in the interest of avoiding litigation, with the expectation that it would later settle the matter with Jobu in mediation. Meanwhile, McMillan was unable to secure a national promoter to replace Jobu, and so he partnered with a local Minnesota promoter to finish the job.
Bremer argues that even if McMillan and Koppelman had mismanaged the tribute, it was not liable for their actions, since state law allows a special administrator to rely on their expertise of the agents it employs. And once McMillan took on the task of promoting the concert, he was not acting on the bank's behalf, Bremer says, adding that the bank was not even a party to the final contract between the heirs and the promoters.
McMillan, who represented Prince for 13 years and helped to extract him from his Warner Bros. contract in the '90s, told Billboard today in a statement:
“My relationship with Prince has always been pure and positive: He was my partner and my friend. The Prince Tribute was amazing for all who participated and will continue to be beautiful.
“There was never any wrongdoing and our efforts saved the Prince Tribute by switching venues, providing the funding personally, and calling friends who loved Prince to perform,” the statement continues. “It was an absolute success. The false allegations evidence malice and ignorance about the music business and disrespect to Prince and his fans who have discernment.”
In addition, Bremer disputed assertions from Nelson and Baker that the heirs had insufficient access to financial information and that its final accounting is incomplete, and the bank asked the court to grant its discharge.
Bremer also states that it made an initial payment of $21 million in estate taxes on Jan. 23. The rest of the tax bill, which may swallow nearly half the estate's value, will come due in six months.
Prince died April 21 last year of an accidental overdose of the painkiller fentanyl. Because he apparently left no will, Judge Eide and Bremer spent much of 2016 fielding numerous claims from people insisting they were related to Prince, few of whom presented a strong enough case to even warrant genetic testing. At a recent hearing, the judge said the estate would likely be divided between the six people listed on the initial filing with the court: sister Tyka Nelson and half-siblings Sharon Nelson, Norrine Nelson, John Nelson, Omarr Baker and Alfred Jackson.