Prince's Famous Vault Opens: Inside His Vast Archives' Uncertain Future

An expanded 'Purple Rain' reissue is only the beginning, yet the fate of the late artist's unreleased music is still up in the air

Soon after Prince signed on to star in 1984's Purple Rain, he got to work writing songs. Before filming even began, he had more than 100 ready. He obsessively recorded over the next nine months, at his home studio and in front of audiences at Minneapolis' First Avenue. "We rehearsed for six months, and he documented everything," says guitarist Wendy Melvoin of the Revolution. Only nine of those songs made it to the final soundtrack, and the unreleased material has tantalized fans for 33 years. Now, some of it will finally see official release. On June 9th, Warner Bros. will release an expanded edition of Purple Rain, with four discs including extended tracks, B sides, and a DVD of a March 1985 concert with the Revolution in Syracuse, New York (with a 20-minute "Purple Rain"). Most intriguingly, the set features a full disc of outtakes from the sessions. Some of them, including the full version of "Father's Song" and the studio version of "Electric Intercourse," have never circulated before.

It's the first big posthumous release delving into what Prince's estate has said are "thousands upon thousands" of tapes in the singer's vaults at Paisley Park, his home in Minnesota. In 2014, Prince told Rolling Stone the vault includes unheard albums with the Revolution, the Time and Vanity 6. "I didn't always give the record companies the best song," he said.

But the rest of Prince's catalog has been caught in the kind of legal chaos that has surrounded his estate since his death last April. In February, Universal Music Group paid $30 million for the rights to distribute music Prince recorded after he left Warner Bros. in 1996 (he re-signed with the label in 2014). Even more exciting for fans, Universal announced that, beginning in 2018, it would "obtain U.S. rights to certain renowned Prince albums release from 1979 to 1995." The deal also included unreleased material from throughout his career.

But that deal is now essentially dead: Sources close to Universal say it is seeking its money back for misrepresentation after discovering that it might not have access to Prince's pre-'96 material until 2021, making the deal considerably less appealing. No plans for more archival releases have been announced; it is also unclear which vault material Warner Bros. owns, and for how long.

Prince's estate has been in similar limbo. He kept no will, leaving his sister Tyka and five half-siblings to battle it out for estate control. As that was sorted out, a Minnesota court appointed a financial firm, Bremer Trust, as a special administrator. The company got to work making deals, from streaming to merchandising, to meet a $12 million estate-tax payment. But Bremer clashed with the family; the court has put another bank, Comerica, in charge, appointing Troy Carter, Lady Gaga's former manager and now an executive at Spotify, to oversee the archives and future deals. The company met its first test when it put a stop to Deliverance, a six-song EP of unheard Prince music recorded between 2006 and 2008, co-written and produced with engineer Ian Boxill. "Ian had access to a lot more material they worked on together," says David Staley, co-founder of Rogue Music, who announced the EP. "He felt this small selection was something Prince would have wanted out." Comerica filed a restraining order to halt the sale of the EP; CD versions of it are sitting in a warehouse until the issue is resolved. (Last week, a court ordered Prince's estate to post a $1 million bond in advance of the upcoming trial that will determine the fate of the release.)

A bright spot for fans is Paisley Park itself, now up and running as a museum. It features items like the Purple Rain motorcycle, as well as recording studios and stage clothes. Some areas, such as the basement vault, remain off-limits. Susan Rogers, Prince's engineer throughout the Eighties, visited in April. She saw just how eager fans are for new recordings. "They want the unreleased material to come out: 'Please don't let them mess this up,'" Rogers says. "He must have thought, 'Let the chips fall where they may.' But even when the chips hit the ground, they're still rolling and moving."