Twenty years ago Saturday, as best the coroner could tell, Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain ended his life with a shotgun blast at his Seattle home. An electrician found the 27-year-old's body three days later.
Rock stars who die at the height of their fame, however, never truly recede from either the public consciousness or corporate coffers. And despite his anti-hero, anti-corporate persona, the iconic Cobain is not the exception.
Nirvana, the band Cobain formed in Aberdeen, Wash., in the late 1980s, sold 350,000 albums in 2013 as well as 900,000 singles, according to Dave Bakula, senior vice president for industry insights at Nielsen.
With an average price of $10 per album and $1 per single, Nirvana's music sales last year would translate into revenue of $4.4 million.
That's on top of revenue from 72 million online streams at websites like YouTube, about 300,000 radio plays, merchandise, and name and likeness usage deals.
The brand of Kurt Cobain -- his estate was recently valued at $450 million -- is clearly big business, and could grow as Nirvana is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 10.
Larry Mestel has experienced the power of Cobain's brand firsthand as CEO of Primary Wave, a company that held publishing rights to a large portion of Nirvana's catalog from 2006 until late last year.
"Kurt Cobain was a titan in pop culture," Mestel said. "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 purchased a stake in the publishing rights of Nirvana's music from Cobain's widow, rocker Courtney Love, in a 2006 deal that has been estimated at more than $50 million. At the time, Love was the primary beneficiary of the publishing rights to Kurt Cobain's estate, which included more than 98 percent of the publishing rights to Nirvana's music.
Mestel and Primary Wave at one point held 50 percent of the publishing rights to Nirvana's music, before divesting their interest as part of a $150 million deal with BMG.
"His catalog has an income stream that has maintained a very steady pace and even growth when most music catalogs have fallen dramatically," Mestel said.
The economic staying power of Cobain's has long been the cause of infighting between its stakeholders.
In 2010, Love reportedly relinquished rights to Cobain's name and likeness in exchange for a $2.75 million loan from the trust of the couple's only child, Frances Bean Cobain.
Also in 2010, Frances Bean, then 18, took control of her trust fund, representing more than a third of Cobain's estate.
Charles R. Cross, author of several books about Cobain, said that the struggles are not just for economic benefit, but also for the management of Cobain's estate in a way that does justice to his legacy. That includes exercising discretion when it comes to business deals involving the name and likeness of Cobain, and being careful not to "sell out" his image.
In one highly publicized dispute, Love was widely quoted as saying that the memory of Cobain had been "raped" by the use of the band's hit song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the 2011 movie "The Muppets." Primary Wave and Nirvana's two surviving members, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, reportedly signed off on the use of the song in the movie.
A new commercial starring Cobain's likeness is also drawing fire. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Dutch brewer Bavaria recently released the spot, which features Cobain and other deceased icons, including Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Tupac Shakur, hiding out and drinking beer together in a tropical paradise.
Bavaria's commercial draws a parallel to an early 1990s Diet Coke commercial featuring singer Elton John side-by-side with digitally recreated versions of the deceased stars Louis Armstrong and James Cagney.
One product deal that did receive a seal of approval from Love is a tie-up with Converse, which crafted a special edition Chuck Taylor sneaker featuring Cobain lyrics. Cobain regularly wore Converse sneakers, and was wearing a pair when his body was found on April 8,1994.
Other legends' widows have also had difficulty finding balance as they managed the images of their deceased spouses. Robyn Astaire, widow of iconic actor Fred Astaire, became known for tenaciously protecting the rights to Astaire's films, while at the same time approving the use of Astaire's dancing image in a late 1990s Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.
"The industry of Kurt is still an extremely lucrative industry," Cross said. "The estate still earns millions, and Nirvana is still one of the biggest catalog artists."
Even so, Cobain must still compete for ranking among iconic, high-earning artists who died before their time.
"There is the Beatles, and then there's everybody else," said Primary Wave's Mestel. "Between the Beatles and everybody else, there's Kurt Cobain."
Deceased Beatle John Lennon is reported to have made $12 million last year.
In terms of combined albums and singles sales in 2013, Nirvana's estimated $4.4 million trails artists such as Michael Jackson ($8.1 million), Jimi Hendrix ($5.8 million) and Bob Marley ($4.9 million), but leads Whitney Houston ($3.7 million), The Doors ($3.3 million), Amy Winehouse ($2 million) and Janis Joplin ($1.7 million), based on data provided by Nielsen.
Regardless of where you rank him, however,Cobain has secured a prominent place in the pantheon of music greats, Cross said.
"There are many people [who] are stars and have fame and sell a lot of records," he said. "But we haven't seen anyone who combines that songwriting genius with that uniqueness of personality."
Hill, the former Fugee and solo artist behind The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill -- one of the most highly-praised albums of the 1990s -- pleaded guilty in 2012 to charges that she hadn't paid federal income taxes for three years (2005-2007), during which she made more than $1.8 million. On May 6, 2013, Hill was sentenced to three months in prison. Hill explained herself in a blog post, saying she had gone "underground" "in order to build a community of people, like-minded in their desire for freedom and the right to pursue their goals and lives without being manipulated and controlled by a media protected military industrial complex with a completely different agenda."
In April 2012, The Detroit News reported that skiing star Vonn and her estranged husband Thomas owed $1,705,437 in taxes from 2010, the year Vonn took Olympic gold in downhill at Vancouver. Vonn sounded genuinely surprised and moved quickly to settle the debt. "This is an important lesson for me," she said in a Facebook post. "Not being in control of my finances and relying on someone else who you believed had your best interest at heart was a mistake" -- an allusion to Vonn's husband, according to The Christian Post -- "and one I will not make twice."
Vonn is currently dating Tiger Woods, so everything should be fine now.
The star of The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000) and Celebrity Big Brother 2010 was arrested in December 2012 and charged with failing to pay more than $350,000 in New York state income taxes; Baldwin apparently failed to file in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Ja was sentenced to two years in prison on an illegal gun charge in late 2010, and in July 2011 he received an additional 28 month sentence for having failed to pay taxes on $3 million between 2004 and 2006. The judge allowed him to serve his terms concurrently; he is set to be released on July 28.
Ja denied intentional wrongdoing on the tax evasion front. "I in no way attempted to deceive the government or do anything illegal," he said in court, according to BET. "I was a young man who made a lot of money .... I didn't know how to deal with these finances, and I didn't have people to guide me, so I made mistakes."
Though he was acquitted of double-murder in 1995, Simpson has been in prison for armed robbery since late 2008.
Lohan got good news at the end of last year, when the IRS released her from a tax lien after seizing her bank accounts. Lohan was able to pay off her 2009 tax bill -- $93,701.57 -- after Charlie Sheen cut her a check for $100,000. Other debts remain, from 2010 and 2011, but Lohan's business manager is said to be working to settle the six-figure balance.
Burress's standout career was interrupted in 2008 by an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound to the right thigh. According to the AP, "Burress has a history of being sued over debts a millionaire professional athlete seemingly could have paid."
The Bronx-born rapper faces up to two years in prison, as well as a fine of $200,000 plus IRS penalties and court costs, after pleading guilty to failing to file tax returns in 2007 and 2008, when he made nearly $3 million. Joe will be sentenced in April.
According to the AP, "His sentencing will take into consideration the government's initial allegation that he failed to pay income taxes for years 2007 through 2010," costing the Treasury $718,038. When the judge asked him if he understood the charges he was facing, Fat Joe replied, "I super-understand it."
We're not here to talk about anything else R. Kelly has ever done or been accused of doing. Not composing and performing the anthemic theme song to a cinematic teamup of Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan, nor turning a series of weirdly amusing soap operettas into an endlessly iterating urban saga. All that matters, for our purposes, is that R. Kelly owed money on taxes from 2005 to 2010, for a total of $4,848,072.71, according to an IRS filing. Maybe his accountant was trapped in the closet.
It's been a weird descent for Flavor Flav, from hype man for legendary hip hop group Public Enemy to serial star of VH1 reality shows. Weird but lucrative, since Flav allegedly owes $906,250.56 in back taxes from 2004-2006, according to TMZ.
Sometimes you can tell a story in numbers. Five Grammys, 100 million records, 30-plus singles, $1,000 bank account, $10.2 million owed to the IRS and the state of California. This is the tale of singer and "psychic friend" Dionne Warwick, who declared bankruptcy last week. Warwick, who still sings live, blamed her troubles on "several consecutive years of negligent and gross financial mismanagement." Here's hoping she turns things around.
The former Commodore was alerted in April 2012 to an IRS tax lien to the tune of $1.1 million. He responded with characteristic smoothness: "I was recently made aware of the situation by my new team, and it's being handled immediately." It was him they were looking for.
According to Australian authorities, the star of the "Crocodile Dundee" films and his business partner owed a whopping $150 million in taxes. The allegations came as part of a 2004 fraud investigation called Operation Wickenby; the government said Hogan and others used offshore tax havens. The actor was even briefly prevented from leaving Australia after he returned in 2010 for his mother's funeral. Accounting Today reported in May 2012 that the issue was resolved on a "without admission" basis.
You may know comedian Katt Williams from Nick Cannon's "Wild 'n Out," ABC's "My Wife and Kids," or Comedy Central's "Roast of Flavor Flav." The IRS knows him as a delinquent taxpayer against whom they have filed two liens -- one in 2012 for failure to pay $3.2 million for 2008 and $829,352 for 2009, and another in 2010 for $284,000.
Williams's alleged reluctance to pony up for Uncle Sam stands in contrast with his professed love for his country. After telling a Mexican heckler to "get the (expletive) over there!" -- meaning Mexico -- Williams explained, "I don't think I need to apologize for being pro-America." The heckler, he said, had directed an obscenity at the United States.
Wayne recently wound up in the hospital after what was either an attack of epilepsy or a nasty reaction to the codeine cough syrup concoction known as purple drank. In 2010, he served eight months in Rikers Island for a gun charge.