Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago today, on April 5, 1994, committing suicide at his home in the Lake Washington area of Seattle, stunning and disappointing a generation who saw him as giving a voice to their anxieties and frustrations. But what Nirvana frontman and songwriter Kurt Cobain left behind was more than a following of lost youth now hitting their 40s.
Kurt Cobain left a legacy of cold, hard cash — a sprawling business empire that still generates millions today, two decades after his death.
50 Percent Stake In Kurt Cobain Publishing Rights Sells For $150 Million
“Kurt Cobain was a titan in pop culture,” music publishing investor Larry Mestel told the CNBC business network. “He is one of a very small handful of artists that I consider the absolute peak of credibility and value when it comes to copyrights and music.”
Mestel would know. In 2006, his company, Primary Wave, bought what became a 50 percent stake in the publishing rights to all songs written by Kurt Cobain. At the time, Coban’s widow Courtney Love held nearly total financial control of the Kurt Cobain song output, but sold part of her share to Mestel’s firm for at least $50 million.
Last year, Mestel sold his stake in the Kurt Cobain music publishing rights to industry giant BMG, earning back $150 million, or about triple his initial Kurt Cobain investment in just seven years. That’s a financial achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that most songwriters see the value of their music go down over time, not up.
“His catalog has an income stream that has maintained a very steady pace and even growth when most music catalogs have fallen dramatically,” Mestel told CNBC.
Kurt Cobain Near Top Of Earnings List Among Deceased Rock Stars
The estate of Kurt Cobain was recently valued at about $450 million.
In fact, according to Mestel, the revenue-generating legacy of Kurt Cobain ranks near the top of popular music’s list of all-time icons.
“There is the Beatles, and then there’s everybody else,” said Mestel. “Between the Beatles and everybody else, there’s Kurt Cobain.”
Nirvana music sales — combined albums and singles — raked in $4.4 million in 2013. That was more than such other deceased performers as Whitney Houston who made $3.7 million and The Doors — who have lost two of their four members, including iconic lead singer Jim Morrison in 1971 — who earned $3.3 million.
Among rock stars who have died, Beatle John Lennon led the way with $12 million in sales last year. Michael Jackson placed second with $8.1 million.
There was one piece of the Kurt Cobain legacy that cannot be valued in dollars, however. While most high-profile celebrity suicides produce an uptick in the suicide rate, after the suicide of Kurt Cobain, suicide rates were seen dropping for months afterward.