Nevermind the Hype: Who Owns Nirvana’s Music in 2021?

There is no Love lost when it comes to nickles and dimes of estate royalties.

05 April 2021 | Justin Beckner | Ultimate Guitar (original link)

Many artists continue earning money after their death, the beneficiary is typically the estate, or an entity dictated in a will.

In 2015, Michael Jackson made $115 million in spite of being dead since 2009, largely thanks to a Vegas show, music sales, and a share in Sony/ATV publishing.

When his estate sold the shares of ATV Publishing to Sony in 2018, that deal alone brought in $287 Million Dollars. Elvis Presley and Bob Marley typically rake in between $15 Million and $20 million a year.

And Nirvana is no exception. But who gets that money? How much do Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic make? A valid question. Let’s explore that shall we…

Up until 1991, Nirvana was splitting everything evenly between band members. But after signing to DCG and the success of Nevermind, (Kurt) Cobain decided he should get more money since he wrote most of the songs.

According to court records, the royalties from sales and use of songs (records, videos, radio, etc) were split with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic each getting 12.5% of royalties from only eleven songs and Cobain getting the rest.

I have seen reports that claim Grohl and Novoselic get 2% — but I suspect that’s a misunderstanding, meaning they get 2% of OVERALL sales (the result of their actual 12.5% of only eleven songs from the entire catalogue) which I suppose could be correct, but the language in the contract is that they get 12.5% royalty of eleven songs. The fortunate thing for Krist and Dave is that one of the eleven songs they do get royalties from is “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (others include “Dive”, “Aneurysm”, “Scentless Apprentice”, and “Endless, Nameless”).

After the record label, management, publicity, booking agents, publishers, distributors all take their cut, royalties for the band itself was probably around 10%, based on a typical record deal in 1992.

Typically, it was anywhere from 10% – 25% but since Nirvana was a newer band, it’s likely that the deal was on the leaner side. That 10% would be split between Dave, Krist, and Kurt. So, let’s say you buy a copy of Nevermind for $10, the band would get one dollar (10% of $10).

That one dollar would be split up at a rate of 12.5%, 12.5%, and 75%. This would be the case if Dave and Krist received 12.5 percent on ALL songs, which they don’t. I believe there are only two songs on Nevermind they get credit on – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Endless, Nameless”. In that case, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic would get 12.5% credit on two songs. Let’s do the math…

Let’s assume an album costs $10 (for math’s sake), so the artists get 10% of that which is one dollar. There are 13 songs on Nevermind. 1/13 is .08 (rounding up). So the band earns 8 cents per song. Dave and Krist get 12.5% of that 8 cents, That’s .006… just over half a cent for one song, but remember they each have two songs so that equals .012. So, Dave Grohl earns 1.2 cents for every copy of Nevermind that is sold, as does Krist Novoselic.

By contrast, Kurt Cobain would earn 75 cents per album sold because of his percentage and the fact he has writing credit on EVERY song. Obviously, this doesn’t include over revenue sources from streaming, licensing, etc. But it should give you an idea of just how lopsided the deal was. Keep in mind that musicians still have to pay taxes on the money they get from record sales. As Cobain said in a 1993 interview with Melody Maker,

“…I’m not nearly as wealthy as people think. I know it’s to be expected that people think I am wealthy, they’ll think, you sold 10 million albums, so that’s 10 million dollars. But it’s not. I made a million dollars off that record [Nevermind]. Over 300,000 dollars went on taxes, there were legal problems and medical bills because we didn’t get insurance in time. I found myself spending all that money, all at once, all in that one year. I also bought a house, too.”

The band also got a $287,000 advance from DGC Records when they left Sub Pop, but they had to pay that back out of their royalties, so there would have been even more money siphoned off the top until that was paid back. They actually could have got a bigger advance, but wisely opted for a larger percentage of sales. A pretty good movie, in retrospect, because in 2013, Nirvana’s album and singles sales were drawing an estimated 4.4 million dollars.

Also, in 1991, Kurt set up a publishing deal titled ‘The End of Music’ under Virgin Publishing. It was their job to collect royalties due from use, performance, or broadcasts of Nirvana’s music, take a 30% or so and give the rest to the band. Those royalties were split up the same way.

Ok, so after Kurt’s death, Nirvana ceased to be a living, breathing entity, and proceeded to become a legal entity, in 1997 it became known as Nirvana LLC [Limited Liability Company]. Courtney Love retained full control over Cobain’s publishing share AND use of his image and name.

So, the money was to continue to be split lopsided, however, business decisions would still be a “band decision” and have to be agreed upon by Nirvana LLC, which now consisted of Grohl, Novoselic, and Cobain’s estate, which was ultimately represented by Love . Ironically, there was not much Love to be had in that arrangement.

On July 2, 1996, an amendment to Nirvana’s contract with DGC required them to hand over a Nirvana archive box set by June 2001. This became the subject of a rather infamous lawsuit between Courtney and the rest of the band. Courtney did not want the song “You Know You’re Right” to be included in the 2001 box set – she wanted it to be essentially, a Greatest Hits record with one new song. She claimed that Grohl and Novoselic kept out-voting her on matters out of spite. Her request was that Nirvana LLC be dissolved.

To make the waters even muddier, around the same time, DCG was absorbed by music titan, Universal. Courtney Love was already part of a larger lawsuit against them, claiming corrupt business practices. Universal, at the same time, was suing Courtney because she hadn’t delivered five Hole albums to fulfill her contract. She countersued, claiming that Universal had defrauded Hole… it was a mess and the lawsuit regarding Nirvana LLC was somewhat of a smaller issue in the raging litigious dumpster fire that was going on at the time.

Chris Heath broke down the arguments on both sides of the Nirvana LLC lawsuit in a 2002 Issue of Rolling Stone:

“Their basic positions are as follows: As far as Novoselic and Grohl are concerned, Nirvana was a three-way partnership. The business structure put in place before Cobain’s death reflects this arrangement: For the biggest decisions, Novoselic, Grohl and Cobain had to agree. Novoselic and Grohl contend that this worked fine until Love began firing torpedoes last year as the designated representative of Cobain’s estate, demanding everything be dismantled. They believe Love is causing a fuss because she can’t bear not getting her own way, because she is an attention seeker, out of greed and as a bargaining tool in her lawsuit against Universal, Nirvana’s label. They have now countersued, asking the court to remove Love from the Nirvana partnership and to replace her with a less contentious representative of Cobain’s estate.

As far as Courtney Love is concerned, Kurt Cobain was Nirvana. He controlled the group, wrote the songs, and the other two members were only sidemen. He used a group name only because that was the romantic ideal in those days. She contends that when the Nirvana partnership was formalized, she was still in a bad way after her husband’s death, was poorly advised by lawyers, and misled by Grohl and Novoselic’s representatives. So she signed the agreement, a move she now bitterly regrets. Love says, regarding Nirvana’s business affairs, that Novoselic and Grohl take no notice of her opinions, routinely outvote her on everything and have been poor stewards of her husband’s legacy. She believes it to be a huge wrong that, as things stand, Cobain’s daughter, Frances, will grow up with only a minority say over how her father’s records and other Nirvana products are handled, and it is a wrong Love has vowed to right.”

Essentially, Love argued that because Cobain’s estate controlled a larger portion of the songwriting credit and royalties and publishing money, she, as executor of his estate, should have more control over the decisions that were being made by Nirvana LLC. Transcriptions of those legal proceedings can be found here.

Love’s lawsuits with Universal concluded with the label agreeing to free Hole from their contract and return all the rights to unreleased Hole music to her. In return, she agreed to give Universal a cut of revenue from subsequent releases, removed restrictions on reissuing previously released Hole material…and as part of the settlement, Love agreed to let Universal release the subsequent Nirvana archive projects [the box set] as part of the Nirvana LLC settlement. The box set, “With The Lights Out” came out in 2004, three years after the projected release in 2001, which was intended to mark the 10th anniversary of Nevermind in 2001.

After all the legal craziness subsided in April of 2006, Courtney remained in control of Cobain’s publishing rights and Nirvana LLC remained in place. Love then sold somewhere between 25% and 50% of her rights to Primary Wave Music Publishing for $19.5 million.

Primary Wave did what publishing companies do and started to offer the use of songs in films and things of that nature. This bubbled over in 2012 when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was used in The Muppets’ new movie — something agreed by Primary Wave and approved by Dave and Krist. Courtney subsequently claimed she hadn’t signed over ‘synchronization rights’ to Primary Wave —which is fancy-lawyer-talk for the rights to use the music in film, TV, computer games, etc.

YouTube preview picture

This lawsuit fizzled out and eventually Courtney even got sued by her lawyers, alleging that they were entitled to 5% of the earnings from the shares sold to Primary Wave. At some point in all of this litigious shit-storm, Kurt’s Journals were published, as was a Nirvana’s Greatest Hits record, for which, Courtney received a hefty chunk of the advance.

The next twist came when Courtney graciously handed this legal dumpster fire off to her daughter, Francis Bean Cobain in 2010. Oh, and when I say ‘graciously’, I mean she handed over the remaining shares in return for a loan from the money that had accrued in Frances’ trust fund.

All of this happened after another set of legal entanglements when Frances got a restraining order against her mom, Courtney, and had Kurt’s mother and sister named her legal guardians until she reached age eighteen. Meanwhile, in late 2012, control over Virgin Music Publishing passed to Sony BMG. Sony bought EMI Music Publishing but was made to sell various catalogues of songs as a condition of the sale. It didn’t impact the money that Nirvana LLC would receive but did alter the flow of that money a little bit.

As it stands today, the deal remains, Dave and Krist collect 12.5% each for the royalties stemming from the eleven songs and the rest gets thrown down a convoluted rabbit hole of insanity before ultimately landing in the pocket of either Francis Bean, Primary Wave, or Universal.

The music of Nirvana meant so much to so many people. They were relatable because the music was real and the band was a living, breathing entity that was capable of integrity. The more you chase dollar bills into rabbit holes, the clearer the stark contrast between music and the music industry becomes. The more you become separated from the raw visceral impact of the music and entwined in a web of bland corporate litigation, greed, and everything Nirvana originally stood against.

In 2019, it was reported that Courtney Love owed the IRS $568,674.62 in unpaid taxes according to a tax lien obtained by People Magazine. Love told The Sunday Times in 2014 that she’d “lost about $27 million” of “Nirvana money,” mostly by settling lawsuits.

During Francis Bean Cobain’s divorce proceedings, it was revealed that she earns about $95,000 per month from her share of Nirvana LLC’s publishing rights and an additional $6,784 in dividends. The divorce proceedings also claim she has outgoings of $206,000 per month and is worth a total of around $11.3 million [as of 2018. She was divorced in 2017]. Francis has also worked as a model and artist in her own right.

Grohl, Novoselic, and Love seem to have somewhat mended fences in 2014 when Nirvana was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Nirvana LLC is still intact and recently sued designer Marc Jacobs for his use of the ‘Nirvana Happy Face’ that he had been putting on articles of clothing as part of his asinine 2018 line called “Bootleg Redux Grunge”.

Indeed, the Happy Face had been registered with the US copyright office in 1993 in connection with the design that had been used consistently by the band for 25 years prior to the lawsuit. That lawsuit accomplished a couple things – it kept $150 Nirvana designer T-shirts off the market, and it brought a cathartic sense of cohesion to Nirvana LLC, after all, it was the first lawsuit in a very long time where all members of Nirvana LLC sat at the plaintiff table together.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.