It’s taken me a few days to come to grips with the death of the legend that is known as Prince and, to be honest, there aren’t words that can express the depths of the impact of his death. Barely older than myself at 57, Prince Rogers Nelson stepped into his elevator on Thursday last week at his sprawling Paisley Park recording studios/home in Minneapolis and, with no one else around, passed away inside the car. In one moment, another icon of the music industry had been stolen from the world.
2016 has been a particularly difficult year for iconic musical legends. The one most applicable to Prince was David Bowie (who also had a seismic impact on myself) and the two, if not cut from the same cloth, at least were in the same skein of fabric. Both were innovators in the music they created; they followed the path of their own choosing and, upon their death, it was automatically known that there would be no one else like either of them. Add in other legends like B. B. King, Merle Haggard, Paul Kantner, Glenn Frey, Lemmy Kilmister and Maurice White (just to name a few) and, if there’s a Heaven, then the joint is rocking pretty hard lately.
Perhaps the Grim Reaper can leave musicians alone for a while…
There are several other legendary performers that Prince has a great deal in common with, however. One of the big issues that has come out is that Prince was notoriously known to keep a humongous stash of his own recorded materials on the grounds of the Paisley Park studios. A past studio musician who worked with Prince in the 1990s stated that, at that time, there were at least 50 albums of unreleased material that were in basically a bank vault inside the home. Now that Prince has passed away, will there be similar comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson as to their posthumous activities?
Hendrix only released three albums of original material prior to his death in 1970 but, following his passing, it seems there were tracks just laying around that he had worked on. Between 1971 and just last year, 59 total albums have been released bearing Hendrix’s name (12 studio, 25 live and 22 compilations) and this isn’t even counting Extended Play (EPs), singles or “official bootlegs” of Hendrix performances. The same is true in the case of Shakur; he released four albums prior to his death in 1996 and seven albums after his demise. Hell, Shakur even came back as a hologram at Coachella in 2012 to “perform” for the crowd.
Jackson didn’t escape this type of action either. While he was a bit more prolific with his career prior to his death in 2009 (ten solo albums plus his work with his brothers as the Jackson 5 or the Jacksons), he – or, better yet, the Jackson estate – has released two albums of work posthumously, Michael and Xscape. There was also a documentary movie released, This Is It, that detailed out the preparations for the World Tour that Jackson was set to embark upon before his death.
Estimates on Prince’s entire estate at the time of his passing have been put at $250 million (probably much better off than any of the men whom we’ve discussed previously when they left this mortal coil) and it is conservatively thought that, over the next five years through just what is in the marketplace currently, another $100 million could be earned by the Prince estate. The question becomes what do you do with that wealth of material that Prince put in the vault.
If there were 50 albums of material in the mid-90s, with someone like Prince there are probably a couple of hundred albums of FINISHED product there now, waiting for eager fans to hear. There’s probably another couple of hundred of albums consisting of bits and pieces that could be cobbled together into some form of functional music. The question becomes do you just keep it locked away? Or do you go ahead, realize the potential goldmine that you have and release it?
There are plenty of cases where a writer or musician will leave a piece unfinished because it just doesn’t feel right for a particular mood that they are working on at that moment. In other cases, they lose the momentum that drove them to write the piece in the first place or they simply forget that they were working on it in its entirety and move onto other things they feel are more challenging. These things really happen – you ought to see the number of things I start writing that either never reach fruition or fizzle out…if I revisit them today, they move forward hesitatingly again until that fateful moment that they get forgotten about.
Since I am in no manner as productive as Prince, as musically talented or as in demand as to my product (I’d like to think I can turn a phrase or two sometimes, however), the dilemma becomes whether he left explicit instructions for his family members following his passing. It is possible that he detailed out what to do with this vault of recordings down to the T and his family will follow them faithfully. It is possible that he dictated that those recordings never reach the ears of the civilized world, which would be a true tragedy. Then again, the family may go against any of Prince’s postmortem wishes (or a court might) and just release things as they need the money and it will seem as if Prince never left us.
The worst thing that could happen is that Prince’s family sells the rights to Prince’s legacy to either a record company or another artist. This is what happened in the 80s when Jackson bought the rights to The Beatles catalog (and destroyed the friendship he had with Sir Paul McCartney, who encouraged him to get into music rights ownership, over the issue). Simply the material that is in public today should be enough for Prince’s family to be able to not only live well but be able to erect some sort of appropriate way to memorialize their loved one who left far too soon. To sell off his legacy in such a manner would be heresy to his memory.
I personally hope that we do get some more QUALITY Prince material – in my opinion, there’s a reason that Prince put those recordings in a vault…he didn’t feel that they were of the standard that he wanted his audience to hear. But if his family were to deem those recordings should stay unheard by the public – or if Prince himself explicitly dictated that they weren’t to be released (the worst thing to hear would be that they would be destroyed – it would seem like another fire at the Library of Alexandria for music lovers), then those wishes would have to be respected. There is one thing that is clear – we’d love to not be thinking about this issue and instead wondering when Prince would either perform next or what would be the general groove of his next album.