Judge voids label’s murky deal for Prince catalog
A judge on Thursday rescinded Universal Music's $31 million deal for unreleased work of the late pop icon Prince after the world's largest label group said it was misled by his estate.
The voiding of the deal -- which is highly unusual for such a high-profile contract -- is the latest drama over Prince's catalog since the "Purple Rain" star died suddenly without a will in April 2016.
A judge in Minnesota steered clear of deciding the merits of the dispute but said that Prince's estate could ill-afford the lengthy court battle that could transpire if the Universal contract went forward.
"This court believes that the estate must proceed in a cautious manner to preserve the assets of the estate," said Kevin Eide, a judge in Carver County where Prince died at his secluded Paisley Park studio.
While voiding a contract may not sound like a cautious move, "the court believes that the other option of long and potentially expensive litigation while tying up the music rights owned by the estate makes the other option more treacherous," he said in a written ruling.
- Question marks on vast vault -
The prolific Prince kept a storied vault of unreleased music at Paisley Park and his death threw a giant question mark on the songs' fate.
Universal had announced in February that it had secured rights to Prince's catalog starting in the mid-1990s -- when he bitterly exited rival label Warner -- as well as unspecified recordings from Prince's earlier commercial peak.
Comerica Bank and Trust, which administers the estate, conceded that Universal may have bought recordings that overlapped with Warner's assets and agreed in May to rescind the deal.
But the judge heard objections from L. Londell McMillan, who negotiated the deal when he was an adviser to the estate and enjoys support of three of Prince's six siblings -- recognized in May as his rightful heirs.
McMillan, who was Prince's longtime lawyer and earned a commission from the deal, said that Universal had carefully reviewed the contract and that it remained enforceable.
At the heart of the dispute, McMillan said the Warner deal was for "pressing and distribution." He said the wording implied physical albums -- and not necessarily the fast-growing format of streaming.
But the judge said that Universal reiterated threats of legal action after its lawyers were allowed last month to see the Warner contract.
Jay-Z lyrics before court
Prince was an impassioned critic of how the music business treats artists. In the 1990s, he wrote "slave" on his cheek and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol to protest his conditions with Warner as he experimented with ways to put out music independently.
Prince returned to Warner in 2014 but kept defying industry conventions. He refused to stream his music other than through an exclusive deal with rap mogul Jay-Z's Tidal service.
Since Prince's death from an accidental overdose of painkillers, his estate has brought his music to all streaming services and Warner has reisssued an expanded version of his classic 1984 album-soundtrack "Purple Rain."
Jay-Z on his new album "4:44" accuses McMillan of exploiting Prince's legacy, rapping: "I'm surprised you ain't auctioned off his casket."
Universal cited the Jay-Z lyrics before the court. A lawyer for McMillan replied caustically in a counter-filing: "While perhaps culturally interesting (though factually incorrect), Jay-Z's view of Mr. McMillan is not legally relevant, other than to note that Jay-Z himself is competing for rights to distribute Prince's music."