Prince, we know, was quite particular about his work. He also left behind a treasure trove of it — literally, an entire vault. Add in Prince’s pop-icon status and lack of a will, and we have a recipe for drama over what to do with his legacy.
It’s already begun. New Prince recordings that were supposed to debut Friday, on the anniversary of his death, may not come out after the musician’s estate filed a federal lawsuit against the sound engineer behind the EP’s release. On Wednesday, a U.S. district judge halted the release of the music — at least until a future hearing to determine what happens next.
The dust-up underscores the messiness of music legends’ posthumous careers, which can see many parties battling for creative control amid intense public interest in a body of work and millions of dollars in potential revenue.
In the suit filed in a county court last week before it was moved to federal court, Paisley Park Enterprises alleges the engineer, George Ian Boxill, doesn’t legally own five recordings, and that in releasing them he’s violating an agreement he signed with Prince that the artist had exclusive ownership over any recordings.
“Mr. Boxill maintained copies of certain tracks, waited until after Prince’s tragic death, and is now attempting to release tracks without the authorization of the estate and in violation of the agreement and applicable law,” the estate said in a statement sent to media outlets.
Attorneys representing Boxill, whose credits include Janet Jackson, 2Pac and multiple Prince albums, did not immediately return a request for comment.
According to a news release announcing the new EP, “Deliverance,” released by the indie label RMA, Prince and Boxill co-wrote and co-produced all of the tracks starting in 2006, and “the majority of the sales” will benefit the late artist’s estate.
“I believe ‘Deliverance’ is a timely release with everything going on in the world today, and in light of the one-year anniversary of his passing. I hope when people hear Prince singing these songs it will bring comfort to many,” Boxill said in the release. “Prince once told me that he would go to bed every night thinking of ways to bypass major labels and get his music directly to the public. When considering how to release this important work, we decided to go independent because that’s what Prince would have wanted.”
(A sixth song — the EP’s title track, “Deliverance” — was actually released earlier this week on iTunes and Apple Music, but was later removed from the platforms. As of Friday, it was for sale on an RMA website, as the label’s co-founder David Staley told Rolling Stone that it was exempt from Wednesday’s temporary restraining order.)
Managing an artist’s career after death can mean walking a tightrope of competing interests: treating the legacy with dignity, ensuring heirs get what’s rightfully theirs and doing right by fans. It’s especially complicated when a prolific artist like Prince didn’t detail his wishes in a will — which also means his estate is subject to a hefty tax bill that needs to be paid. There’s been some infighting among his siblings; accusations of mismanagement among some heirs about the estate advisers; and fans debating about how to honor a musician who famously distrusted record companies and lawyers — the same kind of entities now very involved with managing his career.
Prince’s estate has already signed a merchandising deal with the company Bravado. His older catalogue has returned to most streaming services, two years after he pulled it from all except Tidal. The artist’s Paisley Park home and studios have been turned into a museum managed by the same company that runs Graceland. Warner Bros. had a deal before Prince’s death to control much of the music from his earlier career. And Universal struck a deal with the estate with plans to explore Prince’s vault and release new albums — although that’s been thrown into doubt amid reports that the company may try to nullify the deal over questions about the Warner Bros. assets.
For an estate like Prince’s, there’s enormous potential to generate money, and not just from music.
“There’s tremendous, tremendous interest in doing things with his legacy, whether it’s a motion picture, documentaries, Broadway, Cirque du Soleil,” former Sony and EMI executive Charles Koppelman, one of the estate’s advisers, told Billboard in February.
It’s not uncommon for a musician to have a career boost after death. For instance, David Bowie’s financial worth grew after his 2016 death, and his last album, “Blackstar,” released days before his death, was his first to reach the top spot on the Billboard charts.
Michael Jackson’s career also had a revival. Before his death in 2009, his image had become linked to child molestation accusations, and his finances were thought to be in bad shape. But after he died, his status became cemented as the most consequential pop superstar, propelled by documentaries, books, albums and live shows. Coexecutors of Jackson’s estate have made an estimated $1 billion since Jackson died, according to Forbes.
Much of a deceased artist’s post-death career hinges on how much unreleased work they left behind. As many as 10 new Michael Jackson albums could be on the horizon. A pair of unreleased Bowie albums is expected to drop Saturday.
Prince, on the other hand, left so much music behind that “it probably won’t be tapped in our lifetimes,” former Paisley Park employee Scott LeGere told the Star Tribune.
But should it be tapped? Prince was careful about his music and how it was made available. He took on record companies and pioneered the realm of digital releases.
Some believe there is an intrinsic, almost scholarly value in cracking open his vault. “The audience will be served things they’ve never heard before, things that will blow their minds,” Susan Rogers, a Berklee College of Music instructor and the studio engineer who worked on the album “Purple Rain,” told the Tribune. She then pointed to her music students: “I want these kids to understand how extraordinary he was, the sheer amount of his creative output.”
Despite the lack of a will, it doesn’t take much guessing to assume how the pop icon would have felt about all the dealmaking with major companies. But Koppelman, the estate adviser, told Billboard that the estate retaining ownership rights over Prince’s work is the biggest priority: “While some people may say ‘Why are you making all these deals? Prince wouldn’t make these deals,’ Prince never wanted to lose ownership and control of his creations.”
Such dealmaking, Koppelman argued, preserves that ownership and control.
“I do want to make clear that if Prince were here, we likely would not be making these deals,” Koppelman told the outlet. “Also, Prince would not be needing half the value of his estate right now.”
This post has been updated.