Finding Nirvana In A Music Catalog

A growing hunger for songs on TV and in films is driving up revenues for music publishers

In the 12 years since Kurt Cobain entered rock's pantheon after taking his own life, the mournful singer's music has been untouchable. His songs with the band Nirvana have been fiercely guarded, seemingly too important to be exploited for a buck. But now a few Cobain-penned songs will play feature roles in an episode of the hit show CSI: Miami during the November TV sweeps as part of a new, aggressive promotion of Nirvana's catalog. So rare is the use of Nirvana's music in this way that the writers of the CBS (CBS ) show, one of the most widely syndicated in the world, are scripting the storyline around the themes of Cobain's lyrics. "This is a very cool thing, and very unusual in TV," says P.J. Bloom, the music supervisor for CSI: Miami, who is in the process of choosing among the Cobain repertoire.


That the Nirvana library, tightly controlled for years by Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, is suddenly available for commercial use reflects a new frontier in the music business. A largely overshadowed stratum of the industry, companies owning music catalogs, from the big outfits like EMI (with 1 million-plus songs) to hedge fund-backed independents, is suddenly growing in influence as movies, TV, commercials, and even Internet offerings grow hungrier for sound.

Music publishing has always been a reliable, if prosaic, end of the business, controlling the rights that guarantee a stream of royalties paid to publishers and songwriters every time a tune is sold in a record store or aired on the radio. The glitz was always with the artists and the labels. But in today's booming market for so-called synchronized music--tunes matched up with visuals on TV and movies--publishers are freely negotiating their fees, no longer relying on predetermined payouts under copyright laws (9.1 cents per song) and those set by collection organizations like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. "[Publishing] used to be kind of a sleepy business," says Larry Mestel, a former general manager of Virgin Records who started music publishing company Primary Wave in January. Three months later he negotiated with a financially strapped Love, one of his artists at Virgin, to buy a 25% share of the Nirvana catalog for an estimated $50 million. "Today there are so many opportunities to aggressively market iconic songs--in tasteful ways, of course," he says.

A huge cadre of fans who saw Cobain as a spokesman for their generation will wince at the idea that Nirvana's music could end up helping to sell hamburgers or body spray (marketers must be quivering at the chance to use Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit). "It's going to get a lot uglier," says Lyle Hysen, who runs New York music-licensing outfit Bank Robber Music, which focuses on indie artists. "To me, even though Kurt was signed to a major label, this goes against every grain of whatever integrity the guy had. It's're gonna cry." Fees for using Nirvana songs in CSI: Miami are still being negotiated, but some executives say it could top $50,000 a song, depending on which ones are selected.

These days, music supervisors like Bloom, those who pick songs to match scenes, are Hollywood's new power players. Critics who reviewed the pilot of FX's Nip/Tuck series, about two plastic surgeons, noted the eerie use of The Rolling Stones' Paint It Black to dramatize a facial reconstruction even before mentioning the plot or the performances. Replacing bland scoring, hot playlists from shows like Grey's Anatomy, Weeds, and Rescue Me are big sellers on iTunes, giving soundtracks new clout to drive audiences to TV.

Besides the payoff, Love sees opening up Nirvana's catalog as a way to introduce a new generation to her late husband's music, says her manager, Peter Asher. "In my view, if 10 kids hear the song on TV and ask Hey, who was that?' then we have maintained Nirvana," he says. Primary Wave's Mestel, whose company is backed by hedge fund Plainfield Asset Management and a Wall Street bank he declines to name, says all kinds of offers have poured in to use Nirvana's music. "We have turned down dozens of opportunities," including a beer commercial and the movie X-Men: The Last Stand. Still, some Cobain loyalists tuning in to the CSI: Miami episode will no doubt accuse Mestel of selling out their hero. His latest deal on Sept. 15 promises to be far less controversial: buying a stake in the catalog of 1980s pop icons Hall & Oates.

By Tom Lowry, with Jon Fine

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