The Prince Estate’s Big Plans: Inside the Upcoming Purple Reign
One Monday in April 2016, Tyka Nelson received a call from her brother, Prince. Tyka worked for Prince in the last four or five years of his life, and he would routinely bounce ideas off her for projects he wanted to get off the ground. That day, he was in search of family information – “more information about Daddy’s side of the family,” Nelson says. “It was the beginnings of his book.”
Three days later, Prince was found dead, in an elevator at his Minnesota compound, from an opioid overdose, including what authorities called “exceedingly high” levels of the drug fentanyl. But the book will still see release. Spiegel & Grau is preparing to publish Prince’s posthumous memoir, possibly this fall. Prince reportedly finished 50 pages; those largely handwritten journals will be filled out with photos and memorabilia.
In the first two years after Prince’s death, little happened in the way of unreleased music, merchandise and other projects. A Carver County judge appointed a Minneapolis bank, Bremer Trust, to oversee and manage Prince’s estate while the confusing legalities – namely, who his official heirs are – were worked out. No will has been found, his estate owed millions in taxes to the government, and dozens of proclaimed heirs flooded the court with suspicious assertions of being Prince’s relatives or children. But thanks to several recent developments, the monetizing and marketing of Prince are now accelerating. Last year, Troy Carter, the former Lady Gaga manager who is currently Spotify’s global head of creator services, was named the estate’s latest entertainment adviser. In turn, Carter hired Michael Howe, a former Warner Bros. A&R executive who worked with Prince during his last few years, to start digging into Prince’s storied vault. In May, a Minnesota court ruled that Prince’s only heirs are his six siblings and half-siblings, giving them a bigger say in the estate’s assets.
Those moves, combined with deals set in place before the family officially took over, have paved the way for an upcoming deluge of Prince products. Starting in the fall, fans will finally be able to hear unreleased music, wear newly commissioned Prince clothing, buy tickets to see an orchestra playing Prince material, and hear Prince songs in movies and TV shows. There’s even preliminary talk of a Prince-themed hotel.
Last month, Sony Legacy announced it had obtained the rights to release the bulk of Prince’s back catalog, starting with the albums he released after he left Warner Bros. Records in the mid-Nineties, including Emancipation, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and Musicology. Beginning in 2021, Sony will also reissue the bulk of his Warner albums, from 1978’s Prince to 1992’s Love Symbol. “Non-album tracks” and “live recordings” are also part of the new arrangement.
“You’re trying to run around and secure everything and make sure it’s not going anywhere else,” Prince’s sister says, recalling the early cataloging of all his possessions after his death. “But it’s roll up your sleeves and dig in now.”
“The Guy You Want to Be Selling”
The first year after Prince’s death was markedly chaotic. Family lawyers came and went, as did two initial entertainment advisers, Charles Koppelman and L. Londell McMillan. Universal Music bought the rights to the music Prince started making in the mid-Nineties, after his tenure with Warner Bros., only to pull out of the deal when it was revealed the company wouldn’t be able to release any of that material until years later than it was told.
Meanwhile, expenses are piling up. Last year, Comerica Bank and Trust, a Dallas-based bank, took over from Bremer Trust, which had been appointed as a temporary special administrator. To date, the estate has paid Comerica at least $5.9 million in legal fees and expenses. Sharon, Norrine and John Nelson, three of Prince’s half-siblings, have been openly critical of the bank, accusing it of mismanagement and arguing in court that those legal fees will leave “little, if anything left to pass on to the heirs.” The other siblings—Tyka, Omar and Alfred—have different attorneys and have not raised those issues, and Tyka, Prince’s only full sibling, claims to be satisfied with the bank: “They’re doing the best they can. They’re keeping me in the loop. They’re a bank. They’re not an entertainment company.” Comerica will continue to oversee the estate for an undetermined period of time, after which the six siblings will take over.
During the first year after Prince’s death, a few preliminary projects were initiated. In the fall of 2016, Paisley Park was opened to the public as a museum, under the guidance of the same company that runs Graceland. Some who knew Prince raised their eyebrows at the idea (or about alcohol being served at the facility during Super Bowl parties there earlier this year, since the singer abstained from alcohol). But according to Tyka Nelson, Prince had such museum plans in mind before he died. “He would walk around and say, ‘I want this in this room, I want this in that room,’ ” she says. “I’d say, ‘What are you going to do with this outfit?’ And he’d say, ‘I want it in this room.’ He would have pictures leaning up against a wall, which the museum people have now put up on those walls. A lot of what you see is the vision of what he wanted.”
One of the first eye-opening indications of the commercial viability of Prince arrived last November, when Julien’s, a leading auction house, included Prince’s blue “Cloud” guitar in its annual rock memorabilia auction. The instrument, which Prince had donated to raise money for victims of the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake, was expected to fetch $60,000 to $70,000; to everyone’s shock, an unnamed museum snapped it up for $700,000. “That was a wake-up call,” says Julien’s executive director Martin Nolan. “It was like, ‘Wow, Prince is hot right now – this is the guy you want to be selling.’ ”
Julien’s followed up with an all-Prince auction in May, featuring items donated by Mayte Garcia, Prince’s ex-wife, along with collectors and one unnamed family member. (Prince’s estate did not participate in the auction and didn’t receive money from its sales.) With a yellow guitar going for $225,000 and some of his clothing for as much as $108,000, the sale netted nearly $2 million, far more than auctions involving other recently deceased musicians; a previous Julien’s auction included a Whitney Houston jumpsuit that went for $25,000, and a James Brown sale after his death included items that, Nolan says, each sold for “hundreds of dollars.”
Among the projects also arriving this year are some that were in place before his family members took over. They include his book and “4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince,” a fall tour that will feature the Wolf Trap Orchestra playing orchestral versions of his songs, chosen and curated by Questlove. According to Tyka, the family didn’t initiate the project but approved it since “those are real musicians, and my brother liked real music.”
Another early deal, a line of new Prince merchandise overseen by Bravado, the Universal-owed merchandise company, is also kicking into gear this year. Prince merchandise – T-shirts, sweatshirts, license plates, mugs and collectible coins – can now be purchased at the official Minnesota Twins store at Target Field in Minneapolis. Each item sports the Twins logo and Prince’s “love” symbol – a minimal design at the request of his estate. A special “Prince Night” at the stadium this year featured a giveaway of inflatable purple guitars in his honor. Tyka says the estate is finalizing a deal with a “large retailer” that will sell Prince clothing and merchandise in the near future.
Searching for Gold in the Vault
The most prized possessions in Prince’s estate are, of course, his recordings. Last year, the contents of his vault – including released and unreleased studio recordings, video and concert footage, and other memorabilia, like handwritten notes and letters – were shipped to a storage facility in Los Angeles. (Initially, John, Norrine and Sharon Nelson objected, accusing Comerica of mishandling the tapes and moving them west without their permission – “Paisley Park is the best location for this material,” their then-lawyer wrote in court papers – but the court sided with Comerica.) There, it all currently resides on industrial shelving in a climate-controlled room; security guards accompany anyone who enters the room, even including Carter and Howe.
The vault material has all been transferred to digital, but it’s still in the midst of being listened to and cataloged. It’s no easy task: The material is stored in every format, from Seventies analog tapes to hard drives to cassette tapes. According to Howe, anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of all the music shipped to the vault was unlabeled or mislabeled. Howe estimates he has already found “hundreds,” and maybe as many as 1,000, completely unheard songs that could make for “many albums of material.” And that’s not counting many tapes of concerts, including some that document almost entire tours.
Howe says a small portion of the tapes also include “exceptionally funny stuff,” such as bantering between Prince and some of his early band members. “There’s a carefree and playful element to Prince that I think disappeared a bit after he became a bona-fide superstar,” Howe says. “It’s a glimpse into the more playful side of a guy who projected a pretty intense aura.”
As one of his first moves, Carter signed off on the release of a demo of “Nothing Compares 2 U” in April. Complete with vintage video clips showing a youthful Prince, the release was intended to lure younger music fans who may not be familiar with his music (or may not have realized he wrote that song, best known for its Sinéad O’Connor version). The clip has been viewed more than 5 million times on YouTube.
One box shipped from Paisley Park to the L.A. Iron Mountain storage facility included 8,000 cassettes. Howe had heard of a legendary tape circulated among collectors of Prince at home on his piano, playing solo versions of “Purple Rain” and “17 Days” along with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Using a search engine and bar codes assigned to each item shipped to the vault, Howe did some detective work and was able to fish out a TDK cassette in that box of 8,000 that was almost completely unlabeled. “I popped it in and, wow, that’s the one we’ve been looking for,” Howe says. The existence of the nine-song, 35-minute tape was a surprise even to some who collaborated with Prince during that period. “What a find – it’s incredible,” says engineer Susan Rogers, who began working for Prince soon after the tape was made. “He’s playing for himself, and his performance is full-on. The vocals will raise the hair on the back of your head.” Howe brought the tape to the attention of Carter and Prince’s estate, who decided to make it the first official release from the vault. Since Prince’s last tour, in 2016, was voice-and-piano performances (the “Piano and a Microphone” tour), Carter feels the 1983 recording will bring his music back full circle. “We basically told the heirs we have this idea that Prince’s final performance was ‘Piano and a Microphone,’ so what if we went back and showed people this is where it started?” says Carter. “The superfan knows he had that capability, but we thought it would be special to show a broader audience that he had that level of talent.” That tape, now dubbed Piano and a Microphone 1983, will be released September 21st.
“Everyone is going to hear this music,” says Tyka Nelson. “Even if it’s not up to par. Why else would he keep all this stuff? He wanted it out. If it was up to me, we’d see something every year for the next hundred or thousand years.”
Using the 1983 tape as a starting point, Tyka Nelson says the estate is hoping to unveil a new collection of unreleased music every year, in chronological order, although she says fans shouldn’t rule out hearing pre-1983 recordings at some point. (According to one source, Prince’s fabled August 1983 performance with the Revolution at Minneapolis’ First Avenue, some of which formed the basis of the Purple Rain album, is another possible candidate for release.) “He had so much, and he wanted his music to be heard,” Tyka says. “Everyone is going to hear this music. Even if it’s not up to maybe par. Why else would he keep all this stuff? He wanted it out. If it was up to me, we’d see something every year for the next hundred or thousand years.”
Next year should also see a collection of vault music released on Jay-Z’s Tidal service, although details of that collection remain vague (Tyka Nelson and Carter decline to comment). Tyka says her brother also spoke of opening a hotel with his name. “It was only an idea my brother had, and he spoke about it to his assistant some years ago,” she says. “In the future it is something I’d like to investigate.”
What Would Prince Think?
What would Prince want the public to hear and experience – and what would he have objected to? That question hangs over all the current plans for his assets. “I just hope to God they don’t turn his vault into a Burger King ad,” Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin told Rolling Stone last year. “You know what I mean? I just hope people don’t get too greedy.”
Tyka says that earlier rumored projects – from a hologram tour to a Cirque du Soleil-style production featuring Prince music to a Broadway musical – were just speculation. “We never said yes to any of that – they were just ideas,” she says. “No paperwork. Prince wanted to do a musical, but he didn’t like things like statues, and holograms were out of the picture.” She insists that despite reports a hologram was never in the works for Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show last winter, but the estate did approve the use of Prince’s image behind Timberlake. “I did not think putting his image up there was bad,” she says. “I thought it was tastefully done. But people want to say stuff.”
These considerations are particularly complex with the music Prince left behind. “It was overwhelming in terms of making sense of it all,” says Carter. “You had multiple versions of songs. We had to figure out what was released, what was unreleased, what songs were finished. Are there songs Prince just wouldn’t want anyone to hear there because they weren’t quite there yet?”
Some of those decisions are easy. In Prince’s vault, some boxes were labeled “W” (for “weak,” which he would instruct Rogers to scrawl on a box if he was unhappy with the performance). Tracks he liked would be noted with stars. “What we do know is that if he never would have wanted something to see the light of day, he would have destroyed it,” says Rogers. To help the estate and Carter decide what Prince would have wanted, they also began reaching out to collaborators from different eras, who advise them on everything from recordings to color schemes.
According to Carter, Prince left behind notebooks with plans of certain projects before he died. One included his thoughts on an expanded edition of Purple Rain, and the deluxe edition released last year featured an entire disc of rarities, most of which he picked. As far as the other tracks, says Howe, “We just try to use our best judgment.”
Carter admits that Prince “really didn’t like licensing”; his songs were rarely if ever heard in commercials and soundtracks. But the estate is not ruling out allowing Prince’s music to be used in movies or TV series. Tyka Nelson says it’s possible you’ll see Prince songs in movies if the scenes are right. “Like a scene where people are having sex,” she says. “We get those types of requests. The money sounds really good, but would my brother approve of something like that? He may not want ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ in a sex scene. ‘Darling Nikki,’ that’s what you do! Or ‘Do Me, Baby’!”
Knowing that Prince advocated for civil rights, Carter and the estate approved the use of “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a 19th-century spiritual heard on Piano and a Microphone 1983, for Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman. Rogers says the performance is “a little bit profane, but you can hear his blend of the sacred and profane right there, the push and pull of his psyche.” Carter was invited to an early screening of the film, which at the time had no musical score. During the final scene, which includes footage from last year’s Charlottesville horror, Carter called up “Mary Don’t You Weep” on his phone and played it for Lee on headphones during the screening. “It blew Spike away,” he says. “The song is bone-chilling, and it worked really well.”
But Carter also admits that making the most of Prince’s legacy amounts to an especially tricky balance for everyone overseeing the estate. “How do you preserve Prince’s legacy and protect his artistic integrity but at the same time be able to commercialize some of these things for the estate?” says Carter. “If we went by ‘we have to follow it to the T of exactly how Prince would do things,’ you can’t really do that and run an estate at the same time.”