Beyond Streaming: How Will Future Fans Discover Prince's Music?

Apr 26, 2016
Originally published on April 27, 2016 8:42 am

Prince's sister says that when the musician died suddenly last week, he left no known will. On Tuesday, she asked a Minnesota court to appoint a special administrator to oversee the estate, which may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But no matter who the heirs turn out to be, they will be facing some tough choices.

Prince always had an aura of mystery. His death at 57 has only added to the puzzle.

The cause of death is unknown and so is the exact size of his estate. His only surviving full sibling, Tyra Nelson, said in court papers that Prince had no known will and no known living children.

And then there is the mystery of how fans will access his music in the future. If you are a Prince fan, when news of his death broke you probably went to YouTube or Spotify looking for your favorite songs — and you were disappointed.

Prince didn't like the way those streaming services paid artists. He can only be found on the artist-run streaming service Tidal, which has no free tier. Hundreds of thousands of fans turned to Amazon or iTunes — to do it the old-fashioned way — download. "Purple Rain" is near the top of the iTunes charts.

But downloads as a way to consume music are fading. Casey Rae, the CEO of the Future of Music Coalition, says new generations won't get a chance to know Prince unless his work appears where the fans are.

"If the format is something that is not used by a majority of younger people, because that's the generation that you're always aiming at, then they're not going to find you," Rae says. "It'd be like saying, 'Yeah Casey, you could go listen to Led Zeppelin but it's only on wire recorder.' "

Wire recorder? Its heyday was in the late 1940s.

Prince had big fights over distribution in the 1990s with Warner Bros. He couldn't use his own name and painted "slave" on his face when he performed. But in 2014 Prince struck a deal with Warner Bros.; he got ownership of his catalogue. Warner continues to license his music.

Lee Phillips, an attorney who represented Prince for 12 years, says usually labels have a broad clause to cover distribution over new technologies.

"Knowing Prince he probably would not have agreed to such a clause, in which event he would have retained control for new innovations, new technology, that go beyond what is now in existence," he says.

And that is likely to leave his heirs wondering. Questions about where to put Prince's music are likely to go beyond streaming services. In 2012, fans were amazed when the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur seemed to appear onstage to do a duet with Snoop Dogg. It was a hologram.

This kind of use triggers a lot of rights, says Matthew Moore, an intellectual property attorney. It could be that Warner Bros. still owns some rights to Prince's music. "And then you've got presumably the estate, who's not only interested in all of it as at least a royalty recipient, if not a rights holder in those, but also in his likeness and his image," Moore says.

Rights to an image vary by state. Moore says in Minnesota it's not clear what happens when someone dies. He says court fights are likely — especially with an estate like Prince's, which may well grow as songs are rereleased and new ones come out of the vault.

But it's likely to come down to what the heirs believe Prince thought was important.

This kind of decision-making is something that Jeff Jampol knows well. Jampol handles the estates of Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and the Doors' lead singer, Jim Morrison. "You can never really say what an artist would think or would do," Jampol says. "You can only say what he said or did."

Through the course of Prince's career he said many things about technology — including "the Internet is over." But, ultimately, Jampol says in figuring where to put the music of deceased artists he always thinks about how to maintain the magic they had when they were alive.

"I think art is one of the highest and most important forms of communication that exists," Jampol says. "And that art has to be served. And I find that so far if you take great art and serve it carefully and authentically that the revenue streams come right along with it."

In the case of Prince there is mostly likely a lot of artistic magic and money to be made.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When the musician Prince died suddenly last week, his sister says he left no will. His estate may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, his sister asked a Minnesota state court to appoint a special administrator to oversee it. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, no matter who the heirs turn out to be, they will face some tough choices.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Prince always had an aura of mystery. His death at 57 has only added to the puzzle. The cause of his death is unknown, and so is the exact size of his estate. His only surviving full sibling, Tyra Nelson, said in court papers that Prince had no known will and no known children. And then there's the mystery of how fans will access his music in the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

SYDELL: If you are a Prince fan, when news of his death broke you probably went to YouTube or Spotify looking for your favorite songs, and you were disappointed. Prince didn't like the way those streaming services paid artists. He can only be found on the artist-run streaming service Tidal, which has no free tier. Hundreds of thousands of fans turned to Amazon or iTunes to do it the old-fashioned way - download.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

PRINCE: (Singing) I only want to see you laughing in the purple rain. Purple rain, purple rain.

SYDELL: But downloads as a way to consume music are fading. Casey Rae, the CEO of the Future of Music Coalition, says new generations won't get a chance to know Prince unless his work appears where the fans are.

CASEY RAE: If the format is something that is not used by, you know, a majority of, like, younger people - because that's the generation that you're always aiming at - then they're not going to find you. It'd be like saying yeah, Casey, you could go listen to Led Zeppelin, but it's only on wire recorder.

(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPLIN SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

SYDELL: Wire recorder? Its heyday was in the late 1940s. Prince had big fights over distribution in the 1990s with Warner Bros. He couldn't use his own name and painted slave on his face when he performed. But in 2014, Prince struck a deal with Warner Bros. He got ownership of his catalogue. Warner Bros. continues to license his music. Lee Phillips, an attorney who represented Prince for 12 years, says usually labels have a broad clause to cover distribution over new technologies.

LEE PHILLIPS: Knowing Prince he probably would not have agreed to such a clause, in which event he would have retained control for new innovations, new technology, that go beyond what is now in existence.

SYDELL: And that is likely to leave his heirs wondering. Questions about where to put Prince's music are likely to go beyond streaming services. In 2012, fans were amazed when the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur seemed to appear on stage to do a duet with Snoop Dogg. It was a hologram.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What up, Snoop?

SNOOP DOGG: What's up, my [expletive]?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What the [expletive] is up, Coachella?

SYDELL: That kind of use triggers a lot of rights, says Matthew Moore, an intellectual property attorney. It could be that Warner Bros. still owns some rights to Prince's music.

MATTHEW MOORE: And then you've got presumably the estate, who's not only interested in all of it as at least a royalty recipient, if not a rights holder in those, but also in his likeness and his image.

SYDELL: Rights to an image vary state by state. Moore says in Minnesota, it's not clear what happens when someone dies. He thinks court fights are likely, especially with an estate like Prince's, which may well grow as songs are re-released and new ones come out of the vault. But it's likely to come down to what the heirs believe Prince thought was important. That kind of decision-making is something that Jeff Jampol knows well. He handles the estates of Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and the Doors' lead singer, Jim Morrison.

JEFF JAMPOL: You can never really say what an artist would think or would do. You can only say what he said or did.

SYDELL: Throughout the course of Prince's career, he said many things about technology, including the Internet was over. But ultimately, Jampol says in figuring out where to put the music of a deceased artist, he always thinks about how to maintain the magic they had when they were alive.

JAMPOL: If you take great art and serve it carefully and authentically that the revenue streams come right along with it.

SYDELL: And in the case of Prince, there is most likely a lot of artistic magic and money to be made. Laura Seidel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "1999") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.