Two weeks ago marked a full year since Prince Rogers Nelson, legendary artist and notoriously elusive public figure, was found dead in the elevator of his Paisley Park home. Regardless of the personal problems and addiction that led to his unexpected death, Prince didn't seem like he was ready to leave this Earth, and certainly showed no signs of slowing down and retiring any time soon. He was still recording music as recently as 2014, and he was even on tour the week of his death. But perhaps the most telling, and most troubling, sign that he left with every intention of staying: He died without a will.
And so begins a complicated and incredibly tangled situation involving Prince's music, his estate, and who calls the shots when it comes to his legacy. Dying without a will always makes things harder for those left behind, but the Purple One's scenario sounds exceptionally difficult. At the time of his death, Prince was unmarried, had no children, and both of his parents had died over a decade earlier.
On top of all of that, he spent the entirety of his career ruthlessly maintaining as much personal control over his music and its distribution as possible, guarding his catalog closer than any artist in the industry. Literally up to the day he died, you'd be extremely lucky to find a Prince video on YouTube, and even luckier to find it again before it was taken down. Until about three months ago, he didn't exist on any streaming services other than Tidal.
Prince wanted no one else controlling his art, and then all of a sudden, literally no one was controlling it.
Since there was no will to dictate who handles what, one of the most extensive and protected bodies of work in music history was up for grabs. This fact is why the legally determined heirs to Prince's estate and possessions - his one sibling and five half-siblings - are currently spending top dollar in legal fees to divide the assets and figure out who gets what. As for who's currently managing the estate, Minneapolis-based bank Bremer Trust initially oversaw administrative duties, but they have since been replaced by Texan bank Comerica. Placing a bank in charge obviously means commercialization is a priority, but according to NPR
, Comerica has also placed Spotify exec Troy Carter as "entertainment advisor" to Prince's work, potentially presenting conflicts of interest that could make the whole ordeal even murkier.
So with all these behind-the-scenes issues in mind, what does that mean for the music?
After all, Prince's "vault" is considered semi-legendary within the music world, supposedly housing hundreds, if not thousands, of unreleased recordings spanning across his eclectic career. Last week, it seemed like we were about to get an official, non-bootleg taste of the vault when producer and engineer George Ian Boxill announced the Deliverance
EP, a collection of outtakes from his 2006 and 2008 sessions with Prince. The title track was released as a single and made available to purchase, and the rest of the EP was set to drop on the anniversary of Prince's death, intending to offer fans a little joy on a day still fresh in their minds.
That didn't happen, unfortunately: Less than 24 hours after the announcement, the Prince estate sued
Boxill and the court blocked
the EP from being released. The estate and Comerica claim that Boxill violated an agreement with Prince stating that he held no right to release music and profit on the artist's behalf, while Boxill claims that all proceeds were going to go straight to the Nelson family. Depending on how the lawsuits outcome, its unlikely well see the rest of the EP in the near future (officially, at least), but it's still not an open-and-shut case: As of writing this article, "Deliverance" the song is still being sold via a specific purchase website, as the judge blocked the EP but not the single.
As a major selling point, the website now touts the song as "the highly controversial track."
This recent debacle is only part of a much larger, ongoing battle over who controls Prince's music, which can best be explained by dividing his catalog into three parts: There's the portion owned by Warner Music, basically the first half and most lucrative section of his career. Then there's the music in the vault that he recorded independently, from demos and drafts to fully finished recordings. Universal Music Group recently purchased the distribution rights to this music for an undisclosed amount, but apparently they're having second thoughts. As some of the rights and music they paid for might come into conflict with the assets still owned by Warner, UMG is considering pulling out of the deal to avoid paying too much for something already owned by their competitor. Finally, there are tracks like "Deliverance," the collaborations and co-productions that never made it into the vault and whose true ownership is unclear. Whether or not these songs will be released is up to question, because looking at the "Deliverance" suit, it's still unclear if the Prince estate can even fully control these kinds of releases.
Controversy or not, the days go on and there's money to be made, and the Prince estate has moved forward with their plans for the artists legacy. Paisley Park has now become a Graceland of sorts, open to the public and available for VIP tours. Last week, it was announced that there would be not one, but two re-issues of Prince's 1984 opus, Purple Rain
, featuring 11 previously unreleased tracks. He is now on every major streaming platform, and there are more fan-made YouTube videos than ever before that are not only being uploaded, but aren't being taken down.
While it's fantastic that we'll be getting more Prince music despite legal troubles, it simultaneously feels like a shame, honestly. During his lifetime, Prince was an unmatched perfectionist that carefully decided what music to release, and did all he could to protect himself from theft and exploitation. Now, he's all over the Internet and his vault gates are on the verge of swinging wide open, both by his own estate and people sitting on bootlegs. One has to wonder, new music or not, if this is what Prince would've wanted, and if this really is the right way to preserve his legacy.
He was so stingy about where his music could be heard not because he was greedy or a hoarder, but because he wanted to be properly credited for his work, and wanted all artists to be given their dues as well. In a complete 180 of that stance, we're now on the cusp of a massive, purple revival, and it's hard to say if thats how he would have wanted it if he was still around today.
Still, this newfound access to Prince's work could very well be seen as a good thing. Millions of young, streaming-only music fans who weren't around in the 80s can now freely discover Prince for themselves, sparking a whole generation's worth of new fans. His music is currently more popular than it's been in years, so now is a better time than ever to give people unfamiliar with Prince as much access to it as possible. It's quite a troubling bind, because even as this transparency will in many ways preserve his legacy, longtime fans know how Prince was in life.
Honoring him through Spotify playlists and YouTube tributes might feel kind of wrong.
Ultimately, how people decide to remember Prince is completely up to them, whether that means buying every reissue and posthumous album or vehemently boycotting them. After all, that's the current problem with Prince's legacy: We don't know how to honor him because he didn't say how he wanted to be honored.
So no matter what the estate decides to do, and until it truly gets its act together, it's up to current and future fans to decide how to keep Prince's legacy going strong. As long as the music keeps playing for new sets of ears for years to come, we're probably doing something right.