are we entitled to a dead artist’s unreleased work? new prince ep raises old questions

April 21, 2017

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK contributor

Earlier this week, news broke of a new Prince EP set to drop on the one year anniversary of his death. The title track “Deliverance” streamed on iTunes, and the internet basically exploded. (At least the parts I pay attention to.) Within days, Prince’s estate sued to stop the release, and the single was taken down. Allegations of foul play emerged from Prince’s camp, with a lawsuit saying the EP’s release “deprives Prince (and now the Estate) from choosing what is released to the public and when.”

The producer, Ian Boxill, claims he was trying to honor Prince’s legacy by releasing it on an indie label. The whole thing was a frustrating mess, and the fantasies of opening the vaults of Paisley Park feel further away than ever. But it raises an important question: are we entitled to a dead artist’s work?

Let’s set aside the contentious legal issue of who owns the rights to the recordings, and who has a right to profit off of them for a second. Laws can change. Art is immortal. Over the past 50 years, lobbyists for major entertainment companies have decimated public domain laws to the point where the public domain is barely exists anymore for work created after 1922.

The estate claims Boxill is in violation of his contract with Prince by even continuing to posses the recordings from their sessions. In addition to halting the release of Deliverance, they’ve demanded Boxill return “any and all masters, copies and reproductions” of the tracks. Boxill stated he would be paying Prince’s estate royalties, and note that the lawsuit isn’t even about money. This isn’t about royalties. They don’t want anyone to hear these recordings ever because they were completed without Prince’s involvement.

By just about any metric, from album sales to cultural impact to the sheer volume of work released, Prince was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. (And given that my favorite record of his, Musicology, came out in 2003, this one too.) When historians uncover a lost work by Shakespeare or Bach, the world goes mad, and no-one questions whether Shakespeare would want you to read a few lines he wrote for Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, or gaze into the abyss of his creative bankruptcy in The Winter’s Tale. The obvious reason is time. Prince has only been gone a year, and the people who knew and loved him—and more importantly, control his estate—are are very much still alive. So how much time is enough before an artist’s work belong to history? That legal question about the public domain rears its head again, but it doesn’t change that Prince’s recordings—even the kinda crappy ones—are of enormous historical importance now and probably forever. I have no doubt that (if we don’t blow ourselves up) in 200 years we’ll still be talking about Prince. So let’s ignore the law again and ask how much time is enough before an artist’s work should belong to history?

One argument that’s been floated a lot this week is that the artist kept a famously tight grip on his releases and how fans could experience it. It’s a fair argument, except that it assumes that Prince’s views on intellectual property and the internet wouldn’t evolve, despite him shifting his views on the subject frequently over his life. Especially for an artist as mercurial as Prince, fixing his intentions forever at 57 seems bizarre. If it’s about quality control, I hate to tell you, but that ship has sailed. At his best, Prince is responsible for some of the best music the world has ever heard. At his worst, shit gets pretty dire. The fact that the director and star of the utterly mediocre Under The Cherry Moon could in the same breath release a soundtrack as brilliant as Parade tells you everything you need to know about Prince’s quality control.

If it was true in the 90’s that no number of contractually obligated half-hearted recordings could diminish the greatness of Purple Rain, no EP—not even hundreds—can do anything to water down his reputation. All music fans know to differentiate between the canonical releases and posthumous ones. No one is ever going to mistake Michael for Thriller.
The music world is rich with masterpieces completed after the artist’s death. Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” tops a list shared by Mozart’s Requiem, Jeff Buckley’s Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, two of the best Beatles songs (I stand by what I said), and over half of Hendrix’s discography. We sigh at Tupac’s estate’s attempts to put out Pac’s Life Volume XIV: We Found Some Answering Machine Messages Pac Left And That Pool’s Not Gonna Buy Itself And Hey Look, Eminem’s Here For Some Reason, but that doesn’t change the fact that Kendrick’s posthumous interview with Tupac is absolutely one of the best parts of To Pimp A Butterfly. This means what fans will accept as canon is a question of curation and interpretation. Basically, if fans love it in the same way that we loved what the artist put out while they were alive, then we’re cool with it, but if it feels like a cheap cash-in, we can tell and we’ll cry foul. But there’s no question that a world without “Dock of the Bay” is the darkest timeline.

On the surface, it definitely seems like Boxill is kind of shady. At the very least, he’s clearly an opportunist, saving this EP to capitalize on public sentimentality a year after Prince’s death, and giving himself a co-writer credit on the songs. He’s probably in violation of his contract with Prince, though the lawsuit doesn’t cite their actual contract, just what Prince’s contracts generally were. So on a financial level: yes, it’s a cash-in. But also if that first single’s any indication, artistically it was actually going to be pretty dope. So re-negotiate the royalty arrangement, sure, but what’s the harm in even letting fans hear it? Boxill’s shadiness doesn’t negate the importance of this EP.

Let’s open the vaults. Let’s hear the EP. If it sucks, then we’ll forget about it just like we all agreed to forget about The Rainbow Children. If it’s great, then we get one more masterpiece from one of the all time greats. Prince’s discography has nothing to lose. And more importantly: when do we get that studio quality release of Camille?

Photo: Getty Images via Rolling Stone