Will Prince control his music from the grave?

The late pop star was known for being fiercely protective of his intellectual property.
The late pop star was known for being fiercely protective of his intellectual property.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES • The late pop star Prince was known as an artist fiercely protective of his intellectual property, but how much others may profit from his legacy, including a large body of unreleased songs, hinges on how astute he was in arranging for control of his music after death.

Questions about his estate loom after his unexpected death last Thursday at age 57. Sales of the iconic performer's albums surged and platforms from SiriusXM Radio to MTV rushed to satisfy a sudden fascination with his music.

About 230,000 albums and one million singles from Prince's catalogue were sold in the United States alone on the day he died, according to BuzzAngle Music, which tracks daily music sales.

His hits collection, The Very Best Of Prince, is expected to re-enter Billboard's album chart at No.1, the music journal said last Friday.

The long-term outlook for Prince's catalogue depends on who ends up in charge of his estate and how much direction he provided before his death to govern his legacy, entertainment lawyers said.

He was one of relatively few recording artists believed to have possessed his master recordings and his own music publishing.

At stake are potential retail sales, licensing fees and royalties for music from more than 30 albums that have sold over 36 million copies in the US alone since 1978, plus an extensive cache of unheard recordings said to be locked away in a vault.

The Purple One had an insatiable appetite for music, even giving pagers to his backup musicians and keeping engineers on shifts so he could record at any time of the day, in sessions that could last more than 24 hours straight.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone that was published only after his death, he confirmed not only a long-rumoured vault of music at Paisley Park, his home and studio compound in Minnesota, but said he had several of them.

"I've never said this before, but I didn't always give record companies the best song. There are songs in the vault that no one's heard," he said.

The collection is believed to include an entire album he recorded with jazz trumpet great Miles Davis, said Mr Owen Husney, Prince's first manager who teaches music business at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr Husney said he would put the overall value of Prince's existing catalogue at well over US$500 million (S$677 million). That factors in the potential not just for retail music sales, but also for rights to film, television, commercials and video games - which Prince rarely, if ever, licensed, he said.

The key question about the fate of the star's intellectual property is whether he had a valid will or estate plan in place at the time of his death, lawyers said. Twice divorced with no surviving children, he lacks heirs, though Mr Husney noted that Prince has a sister, Tyka Nelson. His parents are both deceased.

"Hopefully, Prince executed a trust and indicated his intentions both with respect to who his trustee would be and how he would want the estate to be disposed of," said celebrity probate attorney Dan Streisand, who has represented the estates of Hollywood icon Marlon Brando and singer Barry White.

Through instructions in a will to a trustee, an artist could posthumously restrict the granting of commercial licences to his music and, thus, maintain control over his songs from the grave, lawyers said.

Absent a will, inheritance would be determined by a probate court, subject to the laws of succession in Prince's home state of Minnesota.

The musician was almost as well known for an unyielding defence of his artistic rights as he was for his music. In 1993, during a contract battle with his record label Warner Bros, he reasoned that it might own his music, but did not own him. So he changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph, a highly stylised overlay of the symbols for man and woman. The glyph was sent out on 3.5-inch floppy disks to media organisations so they could use it. That way, no one had an excuse to refer to him with any terms other than his own.

He ultimately made peace with Warner, reaching a deal in 2014 to regain ownership of his master recordings in return for allowing the label to digitally remaster and reissue his back catalogue, according to the trade journal Variety.

He limited use of his material on YouTube and other platforms such as Spotify, although he made his catalogue available on the artistowned, premium subscription streaming service Tidal, launched by rapper Jay Z.

News of his death brought an immediate bump in online sales of his music, with 15 of the 20 topselling albums and 19 of the 20 topselling singles on iTunes belonging to him. He also accounted for 19 of last Friday's 20 top-selling records on Amazon.com.

MTV replaced its regular programming with wall-to-wall Prince music videos and the 1984 film Purple Rain last Thursday, and SiriusXM created an all-Prince music channel to run through Friday.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Will Prince control his music from the grave?'. Subscribe