“Special music industry advisers to the Estate of Prince Rogers Nelson” is not a job title that Charles Koppelman and L. Londell McMillan expected or wanted. But with the artist’s affairs in disarray after his death from an accidental drug overdose on April 21 — he apparently left behind no will — and a tax bill estimated at $100 million, it’s a job they undertook with determination and decisiveness.
In recent weeks the duo have announced deals for the estate with Warner Bros. Records and Universal Music Group (which include previously unreleased material from Prince’s legendary vault), Universal Music Publishing, Global Music Rights and Universal’s Bravado for licensing and merchandise — all in time for the Jan. 21 due date of the tax bill’s first payment — and sources tell Billboard that streaming deals for most of Prince’s biggest hits will be in place on Grammy night (Feb. 12).
The two are perhaps uniquely qualified for the role. Koppelman, 76, is one of the most formidable industry executives of the past 50 years. He began his career as a singer but quickly became a top-flight publisher, working for Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music, with Clive Davis at CBS Records, and in partnership with current Sony/ATV chief Martin Bandier, founded SBK Entertainment, which was sold to EMI in 1989 for $300 million. After leaving his post at the helm of EMI in 1997, he worked with Steve Madden and Martha Stewart before returning to the music business with his own C.A.K. Entertainment in 2011, where he has scored branding deals for Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony with Kohl’s, Nicki Minaj and Adam Levine with K-Mart, and many others. McMillan, 40, is a veteran attorney who has worked with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and, until 2006, Prince, whom he also managed for part of their dozen-year-long working relationship. ; he is also owner of hip-hop publication The Source and Jones magazine.
At press time, their status with the estate was in transition — Comerica Bank, which took over from Bremer Bank as the estate’s administrator on Feb 1., has not determined whether the two will continue as advisers — and two of Prince’s six likely heirs, among other disagreements, have objected to McMillan continuing as an advisor, citing past nonpayment of a loan and his role in organizing an uneven Prince tribute concert in October. Yet the two emphasize they will remain contractually involved in each deal they have made and will make for the estate. Below, they talk about working with and maximizing the legacy of this unique, innovative and very self-determined artist and businessman.
You both worked directly with Prince. What can you say about him as a businessman?
McMillan: He was very much an innovator — don’t forget, he was the first major artist to use the Internet to go directly to the consumer in a major way. He didn’t always seek the largest advances; he sought the most amount of control and ownership, so the deals we’re making now are in that spirit. And I think it’s also important to work with people who had prior relationships with Prince. For instance, [Universal EVP] Michelle Anthony is someone who worked with me and Prince directly in a major way. There are other executives that I was able to get Prince to warm up to, including [Koppelman], including Clive Davis. At one point, people thought he had contempt for the record industry and people in the industry. But he really just had contempt for the one-sided legal terms that impact artists and writers, and we wanted to be transformative and revolutionary in that sense. Prince did write the playbook, and I think we had a very strong run at having people rethink how the business model and the industry works.
Koppelman: He really laid the groundwork for a lot of other artists who redefined the kind of deals they would make: So many more artists own most or all of their publishing and just do administrative deals; so many more artists have shorter terms on their recording deals and understand that they need to get ownership at some point. He was really a forerunner of making that public. I mean, when he put the word “slave” on his face [as a tactic to get out of his Warner Bros. deal in the early 1990s], he was saying to Warner: “I’m not your slave.” He was saying the things that were right to be said at that time, and everyone took notice. Most artists would be afraid to do that, and most of the managers would quiet them down and say, “This is the way it works. Let’s get you another big advance.”
McMillan: He wasn’t afraid and I guess I didn’t know enough to be afraid! [Laughter]
Apart from Prince’s non-Warner catalog, what major assets are still unexploited?
Koppelman: There’s tremendous, tremendous interest in doing things with his legacy, whether it’s a motion picture, documentaries, Broadway, Cirque de Soleil. All of those are opportunities that I think are in the future for Londell and me and the estate to work on. But what we needed to do initially was get the deals in place that are going to enhance the estate and make it valuable for the heirs, and those deals needed to be in the hands of the best of class. We must have had 20 different publishing meetings — with every multinational, and some that just administer and collect.
What was the state of his business when you took over?
Koppelman: It’s important to understand that over the last couple of years, Prince’s business life was a bit of a shambles. I use the analogy, a little bit, of Michael Jackson. Michael had no personal life but his business life was in great order: He had the right record deal, he had the right music-publishing partner and ownership. Prince had a terrific personal life but over the last couple of years, had none of those other great relationships that would enhance the value [of his assets]. That worked for him, because if Prince needed money he could wake up on Monday and do a concert on Friday and raise whatever money he needed.
And he was very independent. I’ll tell you one quick little story. The first time I met Prince was in 1991, maybe ’92. Someone called my office, a cold call, and said they were calling on behalf of Prince, and we set up a meeting. [At the meeting] Prince said that he was incredibly impressed with SBK and [diversity of the] artists I was signing and how I was marketing them: Technotronic, Wilson Phillips, Tracy Chapman, Vanilla Ice, Jon Secada. He asked if I would be interested in him producing artists for SBK, and I said, “Are you kidding? Of course — when can I hear some music?” He said, “You can’t. I’ll deliver it and you’ll put it out.” I said, “Well, it’s my record company, I can’t put something out and market it if I don’t believe in it. I’m gonna have to hear it.” He stood up, said “Thank you very much,” and walked out the door. I didn’t hear from him again until Londell called [beginning the process for the 1996 deal].
What is your status as advisors to the estate now that Bremer Bank is basically out of the picture?
Koppelman: They’re not [completely] out yet. They will be out at a point in time. It’ll be sooner than later.
McMillan: And the court will give whomever steps into that role similar authority to move forward in a way that will be in the best interest of the estate.
Are you still empowered to do deals and continue exploiting the assets?
Do you hope to be in this role indefinitely?
Koppelman: I think we would have two different answers to that. Mine would depend on the circumstances and how much aggravation may be involved. When we started this march together I was very excited about it — recognizing how incredible Prince was, and also recognizing the opportunities that weren’t seized upon over the last number of years. There was money being left everywhere, people weren’t collecting, it was a bit of a mess. So in the first week I think we met or spoke to at least 50 different players, and we basically had deals ready to go within two or three weeks after these meetings. But then there were different sides causing different issues, and that actually retarded some of the progress. So, I’m really good at what I do but I also don’t need to do this, and would not have done this if Londell had not come to talk to me about it, and if I didn’t have the ultimate respect for Prince. [McMillan] has a different perspective because he’s the friend and kind of the conscience here, and will do anything to make sure that the wrong things don’t happen.
McMillan: His legacy is very much a part of my legacy. I owe much of my career to his generosity, his confidence in our friendship, the work we did. So I’m a lifer, whether I’m approved by a court, or just a citizen and a friend.
Koppelman: All factions, in my view, would like us to continue to do what we are doing.
McMillan: Most factions. [Laughter]
Koppelman: At the end of the day, all of them will want that. This actually quite easy to do; the hard thing is deciding who to do it with. But deals have a gestation period: If you’re talking about Broadway or movies, even if you did the deal today, [the product won’t be ready for the marketplace until] two years down the road. And if you did it a year from today, you’re talking three, four years down the road. How relevant will it be then? I’m not sure. The public grows up every day and the attention span doesn’t last forever.
McMillan: What I am most thrilled about is taking this great body of work and working with the family and others in the industry to determine how it will be re-introduced to generation Y and Z and continue that legacy. Prince has amazing content beyond the music — there are [filmed recordings of] the most amazing performances that we haven’t even begun to discuss.
Koppelman: That’s the way you introduce Prince to a younger audience or an audience that didn’t really know him that well — and that’s why the time frame is important, for example, to have a documentary for the younger generation, and for an older generation to reacquaint and understand his incredible talent. If that happens three years from now, it’s not the same.
Is anyone currently going through the unreleased material and determining what’s coming next?
McMillan: Currently things are on a schedule, and there is not an active search through that material because of some of the things Charles spoke about in terms of different interests. So currently the process of that is being contemplated. So how it’s done, preserving the integrity of it, making sure the right players are there…
Koppelman: And determining what’s releasable and how to release it, et cetera.
McMillan: So that has not commenced but it’s soon to commence. I do want to make clear that if Prince were here, we likely would not be making these deals — but also, Prince would not be needing half the value of his estate [to pay the estate tax bill] right now. While some people may say “Why are you making all these deals? Prince wouldn’t make these deals,” Prince never wanted to lose ownership and control of his creations, so we place ownership and control over dealmaking [in order to] preserve the assets and stay within Prince’s brand values. And as I have told everybody, there’s not gonna be a big I.R.S. truck backing up to Paisley Park saying “I’ll take those assets!”
Is the fact that he didn’t have a will a reason why so much of the value of his estate is going to the government?
Koppelman: No. It’ll be worked out. Whether he had a will or he didn’t have a will, when you die there’s an estate that has to be dealt with for the government.
McMillan: At some point, somebody would’ve been getting it and having to [raise] the estate tax. The government’s gonna get paid regardless.
Why didn’t Prince have a will?
McMillan: Let me say it this way. Prince, in my opinion, should’ve had a will. Many of us who worked with Prince advised him to have a will. But those who really know Prince are not surprised he didn’t have a will.
McMillan: Because Prince would ask you, “Who wants to kill me? Somebody wants to kill me?” [Laughter] All of us thought that Prince would outlive us.
Koppleman: And by the way, the only reason Michael Jackson had a will is because on one of his financing [deals], the banker insisted upon it. Otherwise he probably wouldn’t have had a will. [Having one would mean] recognizing your own mortality, and some artists or some people…
McMillan: I do want to say one thing about the family and the heirs, they’re not fighting with each other. Some of the issues [are due to the fact] that you’ve got six people who have been forced to come together. Some of them didn’t even know each other. They had different views and concepts, different advisors. So when you have that many differences, it takes time to shake itself out.
Londell, two of the heirs have made some strong accusations against you. Is there anything you want to say in regard to that beyond what you’ve already said?
McMillan: Family members in mourning are easy to take advantage of. People who advise vulnerable people should have a higher responsibility and ethics in terms of what they do. I’m very confident in what we’re doing and I know that those stories are false, both of those allegations have no truth and no merit whatsoever. There’s never been any malice or wrongdoing that I’ve been accused of that has merit. We’ve got four of six [likely heirs] that are very enthusiastic and I’m very grateful to have the majority of the family fully in support. Prince told me a long time ago, “Don’t worry too much about what other people say, just keep doing the right thing and move forward.”
Apart from the earlier Warner Bros. material, does the estate own all of Prince’s masters?
McMillan: Everything from [1996’s] Emancipation on, absolutely, one hundred percent. Even with masters under Warner Bros. — not all of them, but [the estate] owns a substantial amount of the Warner masters.
Are any of the licensing deals for that material still in effect? Could someone license all of the non-Warner material?
McMillan: Certainly towards the latter part of his life there are a few that may be in effect, but nothing that’s materially going to impact what we do — to our knowledge. To our knowledge — I want to make sure that’s clear.
Koppelman: That’s why it’s always good to have a lawyer as your partner.
McMillan: We’ve got another big, huge deal that’s about to be announced. It’s gonna be one of the best deals ever, I think, because he’s got one of the greatest catalogs.
Can you give any sense of what that deal is?
Koppelman: [Laughing] We could, but we’d have to shoot you.
McMillan: It’s for recorded music [the catalog deal with Universal, announced on Feb. 9].