“It was important to work things out with Prince and have him come back to Warner Bros.,” says label chairman/CEO Cameron Strang, speaking with Billboard at the company’s Burbank headquarters on the day after the artist’s death — the same offices Prince walked through in 1977 as a 19-year-old new signing. Strang had inked the artist to a new deal in 2014, 18 years after he had left Warner Bros. after a bitter dispute over ownership of his music. “Prince had a real connection with a lot of people here,” says Strang.
That sense of closure is misleadingly tidy: For an astute artist so outspoken about his rights to the ownership of his work and likeness, Prince apparently left his business affairs in considerable disarray — and according to his sister Tyka Nelson, even without a will. Thus, it could be months or even years before a coherent strategy emerges for the management of Prince’s estate and his substantial intellectual-property assets, the recorded-music elements of which are valued in the range of $100 million, according to sources.
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Prince’s supporting cast had been a revolving door for decades; he didn’t have a longtime, trusted confidant like attorney John Branca was for Michael Jackson. His attorney at the time of his death was Rhonda Trotter from the Los Angeles law firm Kaye Scholer, who had executed the 2014 Warner Bros. deal along with former Barack Obama insider Van Jones. His longest standing, although sporadic, recent associate was entertainment lawyer L. Londell McMillan, who reportedly traveled to Minneapolis after Prince’s death to help handle the chaos around the estate. (Neither Trotter nor McMillan would comment for this story.)
Apart from the beneficiaries, the entity with the most at stake in these affairs is Warner Music Group (WMG), which released the artist’s music for the first 18 years of his career — and also released two Prince albums in 2014 — and could control much of his legendary vast archive of unreleased material, which is said to include hundreds if not more than 1,000 songs.
Prince released music through many different labels and digital properties in the years after he left Warner Bros., yet his catalog with the label, released between 1978 and 1996, is by far the most valuable. On April 21, the day of his death, Prince generated track sales of 1.04 million units, according to Nielsen Music, of which 1.03 million were on Warner Bros. The catalog on Prince’s own label, NPG, generated just 3,400 track sales; his Columbia and Republic catalog combined sold about the same number; and another 100,000 units were under the myriad, often-one-off deals he had executed through the years.
The nature of Prince’s relationship with Warner Bros. at the time of his death is unclear. While he famously eviscerated the company over ownership issues in the years leading up to his departure, the announcement of the 2014 deal promised “the release of long-awaited, previously unheard material, while giving the artist ownership of the master recordings of his classic, global hits,” as well as a 30th-anniversary deluxe edition of Purple Rain. However, nothing has materialized thus far from the agreement beyond the two 2014 albums, Prince’s Art Official Age (which to date has scanned nearly 154,000 units) and Prince & 3rdeyegirl’s Plectrumelectrum (60,000 units). Strang tells Billboard that no further releases under the deal are scheduled.
Sources tell Billboard that Prince’s ownership of his Warner Bros. catalog is for the United States only; WMG still owns and controls it for the rest of the world. In exchange for Prince’s ownership of his master recordings, sources say WMG received a long-term licensing and distribution deal — possibly for the life of the copyright, i.e., 75 years after the author’s death. For its part, WMG gave Prince a huge bump in royalties for his records — Billboard estimates that the artist received a blended rate of 37 percent across all formats and territories.
Based on the deal’s press release, it seems likely that Prince at least verbally agreed to issue upgraded versions of his Warner Bros.-era albums and mine his vault for previously unreleased material. When asked about the Purple Rain reissue, Strang told Billboard, “I definitely discussed it with Prince. At times he toyed with doing something with it and maybe worked on it, but he considered Purple Rain a masterpiece, and I think he liked it the way it was.”
Of course, Prince’s recorded-music assets are just one element of his vast creative output. According to reports, Prince had already turned in 50 pages of his planned memoir, originally scheduled for publication via Random House imprint Spiegel & Grau in fall 2017, and he may have dictated additional material that could help complete the project. “Prince’s legacy is more than the music and his films,” says Jeff Jampol of Jampol Artist Management, which oversees the estates of The Doors, Janis Joplin and the Ramones, among other artists, and consults the for the Michael Jackson estate. “As the manager of assets, we speak to everyone who was close to an artist and try to establish a playbook based on what they approved or didn’t during their lifetime. There are photographs, films, videos, recordings. Are there books or documentaries that can be done? A touring museum, merchandising, apparel? If you enter into this thinking it’s just about the music, you have already failed.”
Additional reporting by Matt Diehl
This article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of Billboard.