Prince's songs still in limbo


NEW YORK • Will fans ever get to hear the full depths of Prince's storied recording vault?

After the musician's death in April last year, attention focused on the trove of unreleased material he kept in two storage vaults at Paisley Park, his studio complex outside Minneapolis.

Over the years, it has attained near-mythic status and his associates have reported that it contained hundreds or even thousands of songs. Yet when Prince died - without a will or a plan for the music's release - most of the vault was not even catalogued.

Last Friday, a glimpse of this trove emerged with a reissue of Purple Rain by Warner Bros and NPG, Prince's record company, including a bonus disc of unreleased material.

But a conflict in Prince's estate over a US$31-million (S$43- million) deal with Universal for music rights means that much of the vault may not see daylight for months or years to come. And music industry lawyers say that copyright entanglements may complicate or even prohibit the release of more music. The aborted release of Deliverance, an EP that the estate sued to block, may be one example of these problems.

For much of last year, Prince's estate has been in a state of "personal and corporate mayhem", as described by the judge overseeing it, Kevin Eide of Carver County District Court in Chaska, Minnesota.

By early this year, things appeared to be stabilising, with music deals announced with Universal and others.

But the estate was thrown into tumult again when Universal wanted to cancel its deal for Prince's recorded music, which included his later albums, rights to most of the vault and, critically for Universal, a timetable for obtaining American release rights for some of his early hits, after the expiration of existing deals with Warner Bros.

Universal said it had been "misled and likely defrauded" by representatives of Bremer Trust, the Minnesota bank charged with administering the estate, and demanded its money back. According to Universal, it learnt after closing the deal that some rights it had paid for conflicted with those held by Warner, through a confidential deal the company signed with Prince in 2014.

Judge Eide has allowed Universal's lawyers to finally view the Warner contract and the company's response is expected this week.

Whatever happens, music executives say, the episode may harm the estate and complicate efforts to make another deal. "I don't think there's an outcome that is free of cost," said Ms Lisa Alter, a copyright lawyer who is not involved in the case, "and I don't think there's an outcome that is free of some damage to the estate in terms of throwing a cloud over what the rights really are."

Representatives of Universal and Warner declined to comment.

In a statement, a spokesman for Bremer declined to respond to specific questions, but added that the bank had acted in the best interests of the estate and that "all agreements and entertainment contracts were properly reviewed, authorised and approved by the court".

The conflicts in the Prince estate have become the music industry's equivalent of a soap opera. It is rare for a major deal such as Universal's to be cancelled, music executives said. And the story has become all the more riveting with allegations of mismanagement and deception on the part of estate representatives, including Mr L. Londell McMillan, a lawyer who once represented Prince and was an adviser to Bremer.

In sealed filings with the court as early as September, the six heirs to the estate - Prince's siblings and half-siblings - raised concerns about the estate's pending deals. Among those concerns was whether Universal's deal would conflict with the Warner agreement.

But in recent filings of his own, Mr McMillan denied any wrongdoing and said that the Universal contract is valid.

Comerica Bank & Trust, which replaced Bremer, has asked the judge to rescind the deal, but would only go so far as to say that it "cannot unequivocally assure" the court that the two contracts do not conflict. Instead, it recommends cancelling the deal to avoid litigation.

For Universal, the most important question is how soon it could get American release rights to Prince's most popular music.

"If Universal's numbers were wrong as a result of a release date slipping by as much as two or three years that would make the US$31 million they paid for it uneconomic for them," said Mr Larry Miller, director of the music business programme at the Steinhardt School at New York University, "and it's no surprise they might want to walk away."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'Prince's songs still in limbo'. Print Edition | Subscribe