First the intercom would buzz from inside Paisley Park’s Studio A. Someone would wheel in a rickety cart. Prince would hand over large reels of 2-inch recording tape. Then the cart would be rolled onto the elevator, down to the basement and on toward the foot-thick steel vault door straight out of a bank heist movie.
The first time Scott LeGere faced this task in 2005, he couldn’t even get past the “pre-vault” room, a 20-square-foot storage space in front of the actual vault.
“The floor in front of the door was filled with 2-inch tapes,” the former Paisley Park studio traffic manager remembers. “The door wouldn’t budge. So by 2005, not only was the vault itself bursting at the seams with these tapes, so was the room in front of it.”
It’s a fitting analogy for Prince’s career one year after his death. Things are ready to burst. Within a few months of his passing, new deals were in the works to make money at rates 10 times or more what he earned in recent decades — and in ways he often stood against.
That fabled vault in Chanhassen will soon be mined by Universal Music for a steady stream of “new” albums to be released in the coming years; maybe even the next 100 years. Warner Bros. is readying reissues of his heyday-era albums, including an expanded “Purple
Rain” coming June 9 along with two unreleased concert movies.
There’s also an untold number of live films and albums on file from one of rock’s all-time greatest performers. Prince’s mountain of unreleased material makes the ever-gainful Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix archives look like anthills.
And that’s just the recorded stuff. To think of a famous rock or pop icon’s posthumous career simply in music terms is so 1999.
Merchandising, song publishing, advertising and branding deals, movie rights, Broadway rights and licensing for other live events are all big moneymakers for estates of deceased megastars.
“The estate has to come up with a plan to extend interest in an artist beyond the initial short-term boost when they die, and there are many, many options,” says Forbes writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg, who wrote a book on the sharp turnaround of Michael Jackson’s once-troubled estate into an enterprise that made $825 million in 2016.
“The more distinct the personality is, the longer the shelf life. Obviously, Prince was very distinctive.”
Prince’s estate — stymied by family infighting and legal dust-ups, as Jackson’s was — has already signed a new merchandising deal with Bravado, a company that sells everything from George Harrison turntables to Whitney Houston handbags.
There’s also a new international song publishing deal that Billboard magazine described as a “sweepstakes,” won by former Live Nation chairman and Eagles manager Irving Azoff’s company Global Music Rights. The rights to one Prince song were already sold for a Google Pixel phone commercial, which premiered during the Grammys.
Closer to home, much of Prince’s $25 million in real estate (including former home sites) is being sold off. Paisley Park is now managed by the company that runs Elvis’ Graceland, which hastily turned it into a museum last fall.
This week, Graceland Holdings is hosting a four-night Celebration series at the Chanhassen studio complex, with concerts by the Revolution and the Time starting Thursday to mark the April 21 anniversary of Prince’s passing. Tickets are priced at $500 to $1,000. Prince himself usually charged $50 or less for performances there.
It’s no surprise Prince is worth a lot more now than before his death. That’s been true of the most famous lost rock and pop legends going back to Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix.
What’s unique in the case of Minnesota’s suddenly stolen and still sorely missed icon is: a) how steeply his worth has already risen in one year; b) how many years it might be before his family actually sees any of the money currently being made, and c) how much Prince himself might have hated what’s going on.
Except for the Warner Bros. deal — which started when Prince extraordinarily regained the ownership of his best known albums in 2014 — the late artist did not pursue these ventures. He didn’t even have a manager, choosing to call the shots himself.
“There might be some careful consideration into what is done with the [albums],” says one source familiar with the estate dealings, “but in everything else, the question of what Prince would’ve wanted doesn’t apply anymore. It can’t.”
Lawyers, holograms and money
Two things everyone knows Prince disliked: lawyers and record company executives. One of each was brought in last year to steer these major business deals.
Big shots from New York and Los Angeles, they helped spark higher bidding for Prince’s posthumous contracts and greatly widened the range of moneymaking options. They also escalated the infighting among his siblings. More money, more problems.
Entertainment attorney L. Londell McMillan and former Sony and EMI music executive Charles Koppelman — both of whom worked closely with Prince at different intervals — served as “special music industry advisers” for the estate to negotiate with Universal, Global Music Rights, etc. Details of these deals were not made public. Just one of the deals, the pact with Universal over vault recordings, was valued at around $35 million by industry sources.
Both advisers, in an exclusive Billboard interview in February, make it sound like they’re only getting started.
“There’s tremendous, tremendous interest in doing things with his legacy,” Koppelman boasts. “When we started this march together I was very excited about it — recognizing how incredible Prince was, and also recognizing the opportunities that weren’t seized upon over the last number of years.”
Among future opportunities, Koppelman mentioned interest in a biopic and documentaries for movie theaters, a Cirque du Soleil tribute show and/or a Broadway musical. The words “hologram tour” have not yet been formally broached by the estate, but they hang there like a dare.
McMillan and Koppelman both receive a cut of these contracts, well before Prince’s siblings see any money. The estate’s earnings on such deals go directly toward the family’s daunting $100 million estimated tax bill, inflated by Prince’s lack of a will. It could take five years or more for those taxes to be cleared.
Already, distrust has arisen among the heirs over the money that’s being made — or not being made. In January court proceedings, two of Prince’s siblings accused McMillan of not delivering any of the $7 million they said he pledged from October’s all-star tribute concert with Stevie Wonder at Xcel Energy Center, originally planned for U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Mr. McMillan profited greatly from the sold-out tribute concert and the after-party from the use and exploitation of estate assets,” sister Tyka Nelson and half-brother Omarr Baker allege in Carver County District Court, charges the attorney later said are “wildly and unethically false.”
McMillan’s and Koppelman’s ongoing involvement is also questionable now that Comerica Bank took over from Bremer Trust on Feb. 1 as the estate’s court-approved administrator. The family will be in a very tough spot without these experienced advisers, though.
Everyone involved agrees Prince did his posthumous career a major disservice by not having a will or setting up an estate trust. Not only did that up the taxes, it left no guideposts for his six siblings or half-siblings who now share the estate — some of whom didn’t know each other very well, and none of whom knew much about the music business.
It’s like the celebrity estate version of Sisyphus rolling the boulder uphill: The family has to keep making business deals to cover the taxes; meanwhile, the siblings also have to cover their ongoing legal fees, already estimated at around $2 million as of January.
“I think there will be trouble surrounding his estate for many, many years,” says Andy Mayoras, a probate lawyer and co-author of the book “Trials & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights,” about celebrity estate battles including Jackson’s and Princess Diana’s.
“It was a huge mistake not having a will, and not just in terms of the money lost. For an artist who so carefully safeguarded his music, image and likeness, he left behind no say in who runs the show or what they do with it.”
No matter how messy things get, though, it’s clear a lot of money eventually will come home to the family. The months after Prince’s death — before any of the new deals took effect — produced enough of a financial bump to earn him a No. 5 debut on Forbes’ annual “Highest-Paid Dead Celebrities” list for 2016.
Forbes estimated his earnings for the year at $25 million, including profits from his well-received solo tour last winter. That’s one part of Prince’s career that never slipped: He could always sell concert tickets, making upward of $2 million for his biggest shows in recent years.
Albums will play a bigger role in his future earnings. His record sales jumped 46,000 percent in the week after his death and stayed strong all year. He sold more records in 2016 than any other artist including Adele and Beyoncé, 2.2 million copies in America.
More recently, Prince got off to a royal start in the ever-growing music streaming market, in which fans pay a subscription to services like Spotify and Amazon for unlimited digital access to his catalog. Previously, his songs could only be streamed via one lesser-used service, Tidal, but Koppelman and McMillan worked out a much broader deal.
In February, his songs streamed 12.7 million times in the first week they became available. Even if that number were to drop by half, his estate would still make about $2.4 million a year just off streaming revenue, based on average pay rates.
“People aren’t just going on to hear the big hits, they’re going back and rediscovering the very bottom of the catalog,” says David Bakula, vice president of analytics at Nielsen Entertainment, which monitors album sales and streaming. Bakula downplayed the notion that artists make scant money off streaming.
“They do well when it’s these kind of numbers,” he says.
The streaming numbers also indicate that a younger generation of music fans is latching on to Prince’s music. This will put his legacy up there with a personal hero who is among rock’s most enduring dead legends.
The Hendrix experience
One of the few rock heroes whose fiery guitar work and incomparable stage presence rivaled Prince’s, Jimi Hendrix left behind no will when he died in 1970. That resulted in a complex legal battle between siblings and half-siblings when Jimi’s father, Al Hendrix, died in 2002. At stake was a trove of unreleased recordings and merchandising opportunities.
A veteran publicist who now represents the Hendrix estate, Bob Merlis, felt equal parts frustration and admiration when he worked with Prince at Warner Bros. during the ’80s and ’90s.
“He was just brimming with creativity and always in a hurry to release the next record, but we couldn’t keep up,” says Merlis, confirming Prince’s vast stockpile of recordings even then.
As for the family fight and business disarray behind the Hendrix estate, “it was a long, long haul, but now it’s really steady as she goes,” Merlis says. That’s because of Jimi’s half-sister Janie, whose leadership has consistently put Hendrix on the highest-paid dead celebrities list with almost-annual new catalog or live releases, and what Merlis calls “vigilant policing” of licensing and unapproved recordings.
“The estate needs a real quarterback with vision,” he says. “And it needs to be tough. It’s a mean business.”
Of course, Prince’s estate can’t control all the money being made since his death. Boston-based RR Auction recently sold a big batch of one-of-a-kind items that belonged to 1980s-era Paisley Park staffers, ranging from $20,000 for a record that was never released to a jacket estimated at $25,000.
“Prince is even outdoing Michael Jackson, in price if not in volume,” enthuses RR Auction’s executive vice president, Bobby Livingston.
Tourism around Prince is also booming. Two different bus tours have started up. First Avenue’s Prince dance parties keep selling out, with many out-of-town guests. Explore Minnesota and Meet Minneapolis have prominent Prince pages on their websites now.
It’s too early to quantify, but social media offer strong anecdotal evidence that people are showing up to remember the icon. The Prince mural in Chanhassen was by far the most popular selfie-taking site in a recent online scavenger hunt put on by Explore Minnesota, which also saw a Prince-related tweet easily rack up its highest numbers ever on Twitter.
“ ‘Prince tourism’ is for sure a real thing,” Explore Minnesota spokeswoman Erica Wacker says.
A rich vein in Chanhassen
Ultimately, the most significant facet of Prince’s posthumous career won’t be what goes into Paisley Park, but rather what comes out of it. There’s so much music waiting to be released, “it probably won’t be tapped out in our lifetimes,” says former Paisley staffer LeGere.
Susan Rogers, the studio engineer who worked on “Purple Rain” and helped with the creation of Paisley Park, believes there’s no reason to hold back on culling the vault — even if Prince himself wouldn’t approve.
“Everything should ultimately be released,” says Rogers, who now teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston. She looks at the value of the vault from the point of view of scholars, noting: “There are things to learn from everything he did.”
She also thinks of fans.
“The audience will be served things they’ve never heard before, things that will blow their minds,” Rogers says, pointing to her current students. “I want these kids to understand how extraordinary he was, the sheer amount of his creative output. He didn’t have a team of songwriters, didn’t have producers. He could do it all. It’s an incredible legacy to uphold.”
Some fans are growing wary, however. When ticket prices for this week’s Celebration concerts were announced, Scott Donaldson of Plymouth cracked, “The heirs are doing so many good things to give his fans a chance to celebrate and honor his legacy. Like give the heirs more money.”
Scott Browning of Minneapolis kept it blunt on Facebook: “The Family Formerly Known As Ethical,” he wrote.
Out-of-town fans seem less skeptical. On a recent Saturday night, couples from Colorado and California, Kansas City and Detroit, were among the 60 or so attendees who filed out of Paisley Park just after 11 p.m., following a “Paisley After Dark” weekend shindig that included a tour and concert movie for $60-$100.
Like all Prince events since last April, the Paisley party offered an imperfect balance of sadness and celebration. The many photos and portraits looked down from the walls where the singer lived and died with that glare of his that at once dares and disarms you.
“It was really emotional, especially the way it starts off with his urn,” says Sandra Smith III, from Los Angeles, whose husband, Hugh, surprised her with a trip to Chanhassen for her birthday — a trip she’s going to recommend to others. “You can’t really put a price on it,” she says.
Julie Mercurio of Fort Collins, Colo., says she would do the tour again and is looking forward to all the albums and merchandise soon expected from his estate. “Bring it on,” Mercurio says, with one stipulation: “As long as I know the money goes to wherever Prince would have wanted it to go.”
Alas, that’s the last of many ways Prince kept us guessing.