Battle over Prince's back catalogue and posthumous career begins now

New Prince recordings that were supposed to be released today may not come out after the musician’s estate filed a federal lawsuit against the sound engineer behind the EP's release

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Prince, we know, was quite particular about his work. He also left behind a treasure trove of it – 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 be released today, the first anniversary of his death, may not come out after the musician's estate filed a federal lawsuit against the sound engineer behind the EP.

The dust-up this week 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 and moved to a federal court on Tuesday, Paisley Park Enterprises alleges the engineer, George Ian Boxill, does not legally own five recordings, and that in releasing them he is 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 authorisation 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 includes Janet Jackson, 2Pac and many Prince albums, did not immediately return a request for comment.

According to a press release announcing the new EP Deliverance, 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 says 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.”

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 through 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 honour 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 prior to 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 de 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 posthumous release Blackstar was his first to reach the top spot on the Billboard charts.

Michael Jackson's career also had a revival. Prior to his 2009 death, 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. Co-executors of Jackson's estate have made an estimated $1bn (£780m) 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 are expected to be released tomorrow.

Prince, on the other hand, left so much music behind that “it probably won't be tapped in our lifetimes”, a 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 Purple Rain, told the Star 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 deal-making 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 [also] never wanted to lose ownership and control of his creations.”

Such deal-making, 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 (to pay the estate tax bill) right now.”

© Washington Post

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