Ben Sisario NY Times.com 2/6/17
At the Grammy Awards next month, the biggest question for fans may be whether Adele or Beyoncé takes home the prize for album of the year. For the music industry at large, however, perhaps an even bigger question is whether the show will finally usher Prince fully into the streaming age.
The Grammys ceremony, on Feb. 12, is the focus of a major marketing campaign set up by the music companies that have rights to release Prince’s songs, and by the streaming services that have been hungry to carry the music but were blocked from doing so by Prince himself before he died last year at 57. (Currently, Prince’s albums are only available on Tidal.)
If all goes according to plan, Prince’s music will be made available on virtually all streaming services around the time of the Grammys, where an all-star musical tribute to Prince is expected to be one of the show’s splashiest moments.
To promote the music’s availability online, Spotify is expected to run a number of promotional spots, including, perhaps, a television ad during the broadcast and a series of online teasers to begin as early as next week, according to several people with direct knowledge of the plans who were not authorized to speak about them. Spotify declined to comment.
But when it comes to managing Prince’s music, nothing is easy.
Despite the eagerness of the music industry to promote Prince’s music online, many issues with the estate remain unresolved. As a result, the plan to offer Prince’s music around the Grammys, first reported by Bloomberg News, remains uncertain and could still fall part, these people said.
“The drivers of what will happen with Prince will be the estate,” said L. Londell McMillan, a lawyer who represented Prince and is one of two experts advising the estate’s administrators on entertainment deals. “When you are looking to release product, you’re looking for the right moments. The Grammys may represent a moment in time, but it’s not certain that that’s going to be the case.”
Here is a look at some of the complications about the estate and the legacy of Prince’s music.
A Complex Estate
Since Prince died without a will, a Minnesota court is overseeing the estate, whose value has been estimated at up to $300 million. Major tasks still need to be completed, like valuing assets and confirming heirs, although the judge overseeing the case has indicated that the heirs will likely include Prince’s sister, Tyka Nelson, along with five half-siblings.
Those presumptive heirs have split into two camps over the management of the estate. One group, including Ms. Nelson and Omarr Baker, one of Prince’s half-brothers, have nominated Van Jones, the CNN commentator, to be a “co-personal representative,” a role similar to an executor. The other four favor Mr. McMillan.
In a nod to the feuding and finger-pointing of the proceedings, the judge, Kevin Eide, ruled last week that he would not appoint anyone to the role unless all heirs agreed and questions of conflicts of interest are sorted out. The estate’s next step, expected next week, will replacing one bank with another as administrator, a move that will bring in yet another round of lawyers and other overseers.
Music executives who have dealt with the estate say that these issues have not interfered with deal-making, but they raise questions about how the estate will be managed in the future and who will benefit from its business.
A Tangle of Rights
Prince maintained close control of his music rights, and wielded them to an extent few other musicians can. For instance, he used his ownership of music publishing rights — the copyrights for songwriting — to block his music from appearing on YouTube, Spotify and other streaming outlets.
But that control led to problems after his death. Prince withdrew his membership from Ascap, the organization that manages performing rights, and it was not until the very end of 2016 that his estate signed a new deal with Global Music Rights, a boutique competitor to Ascap. Performing rights are essential to having music played on the radio or streamed online.
Randy Grimmett, a Global Music Rights executive, said that before he died, Prince had been considering managing his performing rights himself, a burden that few musicians could manage. “He would have been the first — and only — major artist that I know of to have taken that on,” Mr. Grimmett said.
In November, the Universal Music Publishing Group announced that it had made a deal with the Prince estate to act as administrator for the publishing catalog, and signaled that it was ready to release his music widely. But as with most deals, it still needs approval from the estate.
A Vault of Recordings
The estate still has one more major musical asset to offer: the recordings Prince released after leaving Warner Bros. in the mid-1990s, as well as his storied vault.
That trove of unreleased recordings, including hundreds or even thousands of songs, was stored in two actual vaults at his Paisley Park complex outside Minneapolis, and has been the subject of fan fascination for years. The estate has shopped this material to the major record labels, but no deal has been struck yet; executives briefed on those talks have noted the difficulty setting a value for such a range of material, and Warner Bros. still has rights to a large part of it.
Some unheard recordings, however, are set to come out soon. After putting one long-bootlegged track, “Moonbeam Levels,” on a hits compilation last year, Warner Bros. is set to release a new version of Prince’s biggest album, “Purple Rain,” this spring, with a full disc of unreleased material.
A Lawsuit With Jay Z
When it comes to Prince and streaming, the estate faces a question in court: whether or not Tidal, Jay Z’s streaming service, has exclusive streaming rights.
Tidal and Roc Nation, Jay Z’s management company, have argued in court that Prince granted Tidal rights to his catalog. But the estate disputes that point, and in November sued Roc Nation for copyright infringement, saying that Jay Z’s companies have produced no evidence of a deal.
The suit has become a tantalizing sideshow; one document filed in court shows a lengthy marketing presentation for Roc Nation apparently intended to woo Prince. But so far it does not seem to have slowed down deal activity.
What Would Prince Have Done?
Even if the estate is able to get Prince’s music available on all streaming services, is that what Prince would have wanted? He was well known for policing his catalog carefully, pulling it down from services he found unappealing. “Spotify wasn’t paying, so you gotta shut it down,” he told Ebony in 2015.
But associates who worked with him say that Prince’s true intentions could be hard to divine. After writing the word “slave” on his cheek in protest of his Warner Bros. contract in the 1990s, he returned to the label in 2014 to make a deal that was highly favorable to him.
A high-ranking entertainment executive who worked closely with Prince said that after pulling his catalog down from streaming services in 2015, Prince continued to discuss with them the possibility of returning it. He was in those talks until the end of his life, said this executive, who spoke anonymously to avoid revealing details about working with Prince.
Alan Leeds, Prince’s tour manager in the 1980s and later the president of Prince’s label, Paisley Park Records, said that Prince’s attitudes toward technology in particular could be unpredictable but were focused on protecting his interests.
“Prince’s wishes were subject to change,” Mr. Leeds said. “His attitude toward technology was that when it served him he embraced it, and when it didn’t he turned his nose up. It varied day to day, depending on his mood.”