WILL WE EVER HEAR THE HUNDREDS OF SONGS PRINCE LEFT BEHIND?
Deep in the bowels of Paisley Park, the recording studio compound Prince built in Chanhassen, Minnesota, lies a room-sized vault. It looks like something you’d find in a bank, with a big wheel on the door and a spinning combination lock only a few people can open. The walls are lined with shelves, organized chronologically and bursting with unreleased recordings. The trove includes funk instrumentals, a rock power trio, jam sessions with Miles Davis. A lifetime’s worth of songs, videos, documentaries, and more. No one knows how many. Hundreds, certainly. Thousands, probably.
If you know anything about Prince, the one-of-a-kind, made-you-believe-in-aliens musician who died Thursday at the age of 57, that won’t surprise you. Making music was like breathing to him. Not in a existential, touchy-feely way (though probably that too), but simply in that he did both all the time. “If he was awake, as long as he wasn’t on the phone and handling business, for the most part Prince was recording,” Susan Rogers, a sound engineer who worked with Prince in the 80s, told the BBC last year. “I’ve never known anyone else like that.”
Recording more music than you release is normal. Every artist can tell stories about songs that didn’t make the cut. But Prince can no longer record. Our catalog of his brilliance, the story of this man we didn’t fully understandand could never fully appreciate, exists only in what he already did. Now the question is, what will happen to what’s inside the vault? A few years ago, Prince made a passing reference to releasing it all in 2013, but nothing came of it. He also once threatened to just burn everything. Will the world ever hear the rest of what Prince made?
The short answer is … maybe. “I would anticipate that Prince and his lawyers had long conversations about that many years ago,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media professor at the University of Virginia. Prince almost certainly specified in his will what he wants done with the archive, and his executor is bound by its terms. “We would only really learn the terms if his estate decided to release the music,” Vaidhyanathan says. “And he could have instructed his heirs, his estate, never to release the material.”
It’s important to understand that even unreleased songs are protected by copyright as soon as an artist writes them down. “Once [Prince] created it,” says Mike Carrier, a law professor at Rutgers, “it was fixed. It wasn’t just in his head. He didn’t just sing it once; he recorded it.” Still, no one knows who owns those copyrights now. Given his history with, and distrust of, the music industry, Prince’s heir or heirs may well fully own the recordings. Copyright lasts the life of the artist, plus 70 years. (Mark your calendars for 2086, when Purple Rain enters the public domain.) But “copyright is so much more about contracts, than it is about federal policy,” Vaidhyanathan says. “A copyright holder has tremendous power over what happens, how it’s released to the world.” We can’t say anything for sure so soon after his death, when so much remains unknown, but we can speculate. So let’s speculate.
Who Prince named as his executor could hint at his plans, says Mobeen Azhar, a journalist who made the documentary Hunting for Prince’s Vault. “Some of the people who know him said that he has a sense of his place in music history,” he says, and understood that people would want more from him. If Prince planned to release more material, he’d want the right person in charge of doing so. But because he had no wife or children, there’s no obvious choice for his executor. Azhar suggests as one possibility Prince’s friend, Larry Graham, the bassist for Sly and the Family Stone, who recently moved to Minnesota. Azhar says Graham manages Paisley Park, and could well be the executor of Prince’s will. He also suggests drummer and longtime collaborator Kirk Johnson as another candidate. But, Azhar reminds me, “One thing that is really, manifestly obvious about Prince is that he is in control of every single aspect of his career.”
No matter how specific Prince’s will is, it can’t cover everything. The executors will be responsible for how they enforce his copyright against fair use and derivative work, for one thing. Prince drew a clear line on that subject long ago, but Carrier points out the heirs “could say ‘you know what, we have a different view.'” Letting someone else make that decision, even after his death, even to someone he trusts, may have been difficult.
If you're looking for good news, it's that there's plenty of precedent for posthumous music.
If you’re looking for good news, it’s that there’s plenty of precedent for posthumous music. Most of Tupac Shakur’s albums came out after his death in 1996, for instance. Michael Jackson’s estate released two albums, both huge hits, following his death in 2009. Jeff Jampol, the president of Jampol Artist Management, which manages the estates of deceased artists from Kurt Cobain to Otis Redding to Janis Joplin, says you absolutely must keep moving. “I say having a pop-culture legacy is akin to walking up a down escalator,” he says. “If you stand still you’re not standing still, you’re moving backward.” But he’s quick to add that moving forward isn’t the only goal—it’s about honoring the artist’s legacy, their story, what he calls their “magic.”
By all accounts, there’s plenty of magic here. When filmmaker Kevin Smith shot a documentary at Paisley Park—speaking of unreleased projects—a sign caught his eye. “There’s a factoid about the atrium,” he told an audience at Kent State University, “that says, ‘like every room in the building, this room is wired for sound so Prince can record anywhere he likes.'” Smith ponders this for a second, then explains the implications: “If Prince is sitting in the shitter, and he wants to write ‘Raspberry Beret,’ he can do it, and record it, while taking a shit, without ever leaving the room!”
Prince and the No-Playlist Generation
Anyone interested in opening the musical floodgates may well discover Prince had no intention of releasing much in the near future, if at all. He was frequently and outspokenly unhappy with the state of the music industry. After wresting ownership of his master recordings in a much-publicized dispute with Warner Bros in the ’80s, he became one of the most controlling artists in this generation. And in the process, his music has become sadly, worryingly hard to find.
There was a time when Prince embraced the Internet. He launched a subscription service, the NPG Music Club, long before such things were cool. In 2001, he released a song, “The Work Part 1,” on Napster. Napster! He did it in solidarity with the company’s fight against record label tyranny. Eventually, though, his disillusionment with the labels expanded to encompass the web. His music vanished from YouTube almost as fast as people uploaded it; he even tried to take down an adorable 29-second clip of a toddler dancing to a near-unintelligible version of “Let’s Go Crazy.”
Prince (and Universal, with whom he eventually re-signed under much friendlier terms) lost that fight, unintentionally becoming embroiled in one of the first landmark fair-use lawsuits. But he won most others. Even as other holdouts like David Bowie and the Beatles came to appreciate and embrace the distributed digital music age, Prince refused. Just like when he took on Warner in the ’80s, Prince saw a principle at stake: Getting paid for work. “Apple, Pandora, Rhapsody, Deezer,” he told Ebony last year, “when you give them your record, you might get paid six months later.”
For now, your only way to stream Prince’s full discography online is through the explicitly artist-first service Tidal. From his 1978 debut, For You, through December’s two-volume HITNRUN, it’s all there—and nowhere else. Other services offer small, seemingly random slices of his remarkable catalog. You can stream HITNRUN Phase Twoon Apple Music, plus a handful of covers, but nothing else. (Not even Phase One.) You can buy most, but not all, of his albums on CD from Amazon or Google Play. Spotify lists a smattering of covers. In an era when songs are commodities and people expect everything, everywhere, for free, Prince is effectively nowhere. That’s troubling, especially for the generations who never bought his records or CDs and may grow up without ever knowing who Prince is, or why he’s so essential.
If you take past actions as an indicator, the odds of seeing more music from Prince don’t look good. More could come to Tidal, though even that’s not a given, even if the company stands to gain from his passing. It’s hard to imagine Prince’s entire discography, including anything in that mythical vault, suddenly appearing for all the world to hear. But then again, Prince never failed to surprise. We were lucky enough to get an oeuvre that included 39 albums and scores of singles, videos, and concerts. We can only hope we’ll be lucky enough to hear more of his music. But perhaps Prince already gave us everything he wanted us to have.