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

Prince performs at the Grand Palais in Paris on Oct. 11, 2009. Whoever ends up running his estate will face some tough decisions about how to handle his musical legacy.
Bertrand Guay
AFP/Getty Images
Prince performs at the Grand Palais in Paris on Oct. 11, 2009. Whoever ends up running his estate will face some tough decisions about how to handle his musical legacy.

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.

Snoop Dogg (left) performs with a hologram of the late rapper Tupac Shakur at the 2012 Coachella festival in Indio, Calif.
Christopher Polk / Getty Images for Coachella
Getty Images for Coachella
Snoop Dogg (left) performs with a hologram of the late rapper Tupac Shakur at the 2012 Coachella festival in Indio, Calif.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.