Questions Mount Over Prince's Music Catalog

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Prince performing on April 7, 1985, at the Orange Bowl in Miami during his Purple Rain tour. ENLARGE
Prince performing on April 7, 1985, at the Orange Bowl in Miami during his Purple Rain tour. Photo: Phil Sandlin/Associated Press

Since Prince’s sudden death, speculation has mounted over the trove of unreleased music he left behind: how much of it there really is, when it may emerge and who will get to make decisions about what happens to it.

But nearly as much uncertainty hangs over his existing body of work, which has been largely unavailable on many of the most popular online services, including Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube.

With no obvious heirs such as a spouse or child, people who have done business with Prince, who was pronounced dead Thursday after being found unresponsive at his recording studio and residence that morning, are waiting to see who will take control of his affairs—and whether that person will soften any of the hard positions taken by the pop star over issues such as digital rights to his music.

Even while he was alive, some of these people say, he relied on a frequently shifting group of lawyers and other advisers to carry out his wishes when it came to his business affairs. That is making the future appear all the more uncertain in the wake of his death.

Prince’s spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Though his longtime label, Warner Bros. Records, has a license to distribute seminal albums such as “Purple Rain,” Prince maintained an unusual degree of control over his music, largely via his publishing rights, according to people familiar with the matter.

Music publishers control the lyrics and melodies to songs, as they could be written down on sheet music, for instance. Most commercial uses of a song require separate permissions from the publisher and from the record label, which controls sound recordings. In his capacity as his own publisher—an unusual position—Prince had a reputation in the industry for playing hardball with would-be distributors such as subscription services.

In July, Prince’s music disappeared from most digital-music services such as Spotify, which posted the following message on his suddenly empty artist page: “Prince’s publisher has asked all streaming services to remove his catalog. We have cooperated with the request, and hope to bring his music back as soon as possible.”

According to a person familiar with the matter, the singer had unsuccessfully sought licensing deals with Spotify, as well as Apple Inc. AAPL -0.27 % ’s Apple Music. “He was very pragmatic in that way in terms of mining the legacy for that upfront payment,” this person said.

As early as 2013, Prince entered talks with digital-music services about their use of his catalog. According to an executive at one major streaming company, the singer wanted say over details such as which version of his songs would be available, and the context in which they would appear.

For example, Prince didn’t want his classic hits from the 1980s to be lumped in on playlists featuring other songs of the decade. In this particular case, boosting his royalty rates wasn’t a priority, the executive said: “He wasn’t trying to make more money off his catalog. He was trying to control his artistry and figure out how to use his place in the ecosystem to help other artists he believed in.”

Prince’s negotiating style was unorthodox. Calls were set up by a shifting series of liaisons, but discussions took place with Prince directly, said the executive, describing two separate hourlong phone calls: “No lawyers on my side, none on his. It’s the only artist I’ve had that direct relationship with.”

Because the online-music company couldn’t meet his technical demands, Prince pulled out. Along with his exit from streaming services, he also consolidated control over his music by quitting the dominant performance-rights organizations, Ascap and BMI, which collect licensing fees on behalf of members.

Prince did make his catalog available on Tidal, the streaming service owned by fellow musician Jay Z. Tidal says it pays higher royalties to music owners than competing streaming sites, and several major artists, including Prince, hold equity positions in the company. In recent months, Prince released two new albums exclusively on the service.

Unlike Spotify, Tidal doesn’t offer a free subscription option. “Now you got to actually go subscribe to get the music that you lost on Spotify,” Prince said in an interview with Ebony. “Spotify wasn’t paying, so you gotta shut it down.”

With Prince’s death, it is uncertain when or how his music would return to the streaming providers other than Tidal. “It’s unclear who would make those decisions,” the executive said. “Prince was making all the calls himself, or so it appeared.”

His music was also unusually hard to find on Alphabet Inc. GOOGL -5.41 % ’s YouTube, which many fans use as a de facto on-demand music service, with millions of songs and no monthly subscription fee. Prince had a reputation for policing YouTube aggressively for unauthorized copies of his songs.

On the day Prince died, YouTube users uploaded some of the singer’s biggest hits, including “Little Red Corvette” and “Kiss,” to the service, where they remained available as of late Friday. Some quickly racked up more than one million plays apiece.

Sales of Prince’s music spiked on the iTunes Store, one of the few digital outlets where it has been consistently available. On Friday, he had 19 of the 20 top songs on the iTunes Store and the six best-selling albums, led by “The Very Best of Prince.”

Ethan Smith at ethan.smith@wsj.com and John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com



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