Prince Without Permission

5 hours ago
Originally published on April 21, 2017 8:41 am

It is important — and always devastating — to remember that Prince died alone. He had probably also been in great pain that evening. But there was, as far as we know, nobody around to help him.

A few weeks before he died, Prince and I talked on the phone for an hour, because he unexpectedly wanted to discuss a piece I'd just written for NPR Music. He was funny, feisty, charming and kind. He was also eloquent, articulate and highly intelligent. It was a real conversation about music, the industry, social issues and life in general. He even gave me romantic advice. He should not have died alone.

He left no will. He either didn't care what happened after he was gone or simply didn't trust anyone to handle it. Again, nobody was there to help him out. In his late middle age he had no spouse, no manager and no lawyer. His employees were dedicated and loyal, as far as it goes, but none had the authority to persuade him to make sensible decisions about his legal and business affairs, to say nothing of the apparent addiction that killed him. Warner Bros. was once again his record label, but this was a largely symbolic union. Its executives were no longer telling him what to do. Perhaps we should not be so surprised by the way all of this played out; years ago, he'd told us that "in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld. In this life, you're on your own."

His presumed heirs — one sibling, five half-siblings — are currently spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each on legal fees to work out how to divide his estate. It is not clear when or how this situation will be resolved, and there is a lot at stake. Aside from nearly $1 millon in gold bars and about $25 million of real estate, the inheritance includes what may be the world's most extensive, valuable musical archive from a single artist.

Prince's masterpiece, Sign O' The Times, recently turned 30. It is the greatest album ever made. (I don't say this lightly and I am well aware of competing claims.) It is not widely known, however, that this exceptional record is actually the result of an uneasy compromise with his record company. Many of its songs were meant for other albums (Dream Factory, Camille, Crystal Ball) that were all shelved — too much material for a record company, even one as big as Warner, to handle. That Prince released around 40 albums in his lifetime is extraordinary enough. But there is a huge amount of unheard material in a vault, which has attained semi-mythical status. While it is probably true that many of these pieces are unfinished or, by his standards (and allowing for his capriciousness), not quite good enough, most of us know there are plenty of diamonds and pearls in there.

"He was capable of going into the studio and being on output for far longer than mere mortals, because ideas kept coming and because the speed with which he could execute those ideas was extraordinary," his former engineer Susan Rogers, now a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, told me one morning over coffee. "Why would you sleep? Why would you leave the studio? He was not a perfectionist: he was just incredibly competent."

A lot of songs from the Sign O' The Times era, Prince's most creatively fertile, remain in the vault, but it was never completely airtight: For years, bootlegs have been available to those who know where to look. Most of my old tapes are from trips to London's Camden Market in the early 1990s. I used to buy them off Skinhead Dave with my mates Asif, Rob and Sidh. Prince was well aware that his most dedicated fans had somehow got hold of copies of songs he had not officially released. Sometimes he even played them on stage, usually in smaller venues after the main concert, in acknowledgement of this especially loving crowd. He understood how much it mattered to us.

But he did not want everything he recorded to be constantly accessible — and went further than any other musician to protect his artistic legacy and commercial rights, particularly in the digital era. He wanted fair compensation for his hard work and talent, and felt that many internet music platforms were exploitative. We now know that Prince gave a lot of money away, anonymously, to some very important causes. He had his own studio complex, publishing company and record label, whose staff did not work for free. Nobody should have been surprised — and certainly not outraged, as some were — that a talented, hard-working black man who grew up in the '60s and '70s felt it was important to get paid. Black artists rarely got the best deal and often still don't.

Legally, many of his personal policies and business decisions no longer matter. These were generally considered eccentric while he was alive, with some inevitable revisionism after he was gone. But now, his songs might be viewed simply as a collection of under-utilized assets that could generate revenue for decades. Under US copyright law they will eventually become part of the public domain, but for many years before then, whoever owns them can make a lot of money. People will always pay to listen to Prince, even as formats and music-industry business models change over time.

Prince grew up in Minneapolis and never left the area. He felt comfortable there and didn't need to move to LA or New York. His studio complex — including an apartment where he regularly stayed — and his main home are a few miles outside the city, falling under the jurisdiction of Carver County, Minn. The county's district court quickly appointed a local bank, Bremer Trust, to administer Prince's estate until the inheritance could be settled. The bank then oversaw a rapid commercialization of his work, including a number of decisions that, for many people, seem contrary to what Prince himself would have wanted.

An actual vault sits below Paisley Park; it was drilled open just a week after his death. In October 2016, Warner Bros. announced plans for new releases, starting with a greatest-hits compilation that also included the much-loved bootleg classic "Moonbeam Levels," as its only previously unreleased track. A reissue of Purple Rain, along with extra material, is scheduled for June. Far more from the vault will surely follow.

Earlier this year, Prince's music reappeared on all the major streaming services; he had removed his songs from Spotify and most other platforms in July 2015, and they had never been available on Apple Music. The unauthorized uploads on sites like YouTube and Soundcloud are no longer being taken down (although a lawsuit has just been filed against a sound engineer for seeking to make personal profit from a few Prince songs he claims to possess). Prince's music is now just as accessible, legally and otherwise, on digital platforms as anyone else's.

From a financial point of view, this is necessary. There is an enormous tax bill of around $100 million, half the estate's value by some estimates. Court documents show the millions being spent on legal fees to sort out the mess he left. It is unlikely the six presumed heirs have independent wealth of this scale, so the money has to come from the estate. To that end, Paisley Park has become a museum, where a VIP tour costs $100. Around the first anniversary of his death this weekend, there is a four-day event called Celebration 2017 — "bringing together musicians, creative personnel, special guests and friends who worked closest with Prince and knew him best" — for which the $999 VIP passes are sold out.

In October I went to the Official Prince Tribute Concert ($140), an exhausting, underwhelming five-hour event, attended by the usual pleasant middle-aged crowd in St Paul, Minn. Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan performed a few Prince songs as part of an extensive bill that for some reason also included Nicole Scherzinger of The Pussycat Dolls. I met Bilal beforehand, a few hours before he tore into "The Beautiful Ones," one of the show's few genuinely great moments. "He really opened doors and made artists think about royalties and things like that," he said. "A lot of things he did beyond music were inspiring."

Neither Bremer Trust nor Prince's siblings had the wherewithal to negotiate deals with a notoriously ruthless music industry, so they hired two experienced insiders and former Prince associates as 'special advisors.' L. Londell McMillan was Prince's lawyer for several years, while Charles Koppelman is a former senior EMI executive. McMillan's Twitter bio reads: "RIP PRINCE. Nothing Compares 2 U! The Greatest Artist/Musician! We shared a Great Legacy 2Gether & Changed The World 4 Artists 4Ever! ALSO: RIP ALI #GOAT."

In a joint interview with Billboard published in February, Koppelman said: "What we needed to do initially was get the deals in place that are going to enhance the estate and make it valuable for the heirs, and those deals needed to be in the hands of the best of class. We must have had 20 different publishing meetings — with every multinational, and some that just administer and collect. It's important to understand that over the last couple of years, Prince's business life was a bit of a shambles."

In the same interview, McMillan adds: "I do want to make clear that if Prince were here, we likely would not be making these deals — but also, Prince would not be needing half the value of his estate [to pay the estate tax bill] right now. 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, so we place ownership and control over dealmaking [in order to] preserve the assets and stay within Prince's brand values."

This sounds somewhat reassuring to Prince fans, especially given the difficult financial circumstances — but inevitably, nothing is straightforward. Carver County District Court has since appointed a different bank, the Texas-based Comerica, to look after the estate, and less than a fortnight ago, Comerica appointed its own 'entertainment advisor': Troy Carter, a Spotify executive. The new administrators have cast doubt on the durability of the deals made by Koppelman and McMillan. (Compare that tangle of interests to the news this March that Laurie Anderson had donated the complete archives of her husband Lou Reed, who died in 2013, to the New York Public Library, where they will be accessible for free.)

Meanwhile, there are many other legal problems with Prince's estate. This is to be expected given the amount of money involved, the number of claimants and, most importantly, the absence of a will. To their credit, family members have mostly avoided publicity — but there are battles over representation, involving McMillan and the CNN commentator Van Jones; a complicated dispute with Tidal, which had signed an exclusive streaming deal with Prince before he died, over the extent of its rights; and a separate issue, once again involving the omnipresent McMillan, about the organization and proceeds from the tribute concert in October.

For anyone of a certain age who cares about Prince — the music and the man, not the ephemera around him — it is probably wise to accept the sense of uneasiness that will accompany the many posthumous Prince releases for years to come. Sensitive curation, by the right people, could help: Trustworthy, respected collaborators like Susan Rogers and Sheila E., for example, know better than most what a Prince record should sound like. We would accept and appreciate a "Selected by Wendy & Lisa" note just below the magical "Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince." But this is hope rather than expectation; the music business is not such a romantic endeavor.

With Prince's catalog back on major digital platforms, however, there may be a resurgence in interest among younger listeners. Too many have been largely unaware of who he was and what he could do, partly because they couldn't surf through Spotify playlists or YouTube and discover his work there. When they play Kendrick or Beyonce or D'Angelo, many genuinely don't know whose influence they're hearing. They should also know that Prince, the greatest of them all, died alone and in pain, suffering from an addiction for which he should have been treated.

But all good things, they say, never last. The new, unusual accessibility of his work may be driven by financial imperatives, but ultimately, it will help protect his legacy. When he called me last year — "Hello sir, this is Prince" — I was holding my baby nephew and I had to quickly get rid of the child; I think I managed to find my dad somewhere in the house. Eden is now a lively toddler who already loves "Starfish and Coffee." He might not know it now, but there is going to be a lot of music for us to discover together.

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