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Prince's 'Deliverance' Label Heads Talk EP Creation, Messy Aftermath
RMA's David Staley and Gabriel Wilson on spiritual background and legal consequences of musician's surprise new EP
For Prince fans who’ve been desperately waiting to hear unreleased music from his storied vault, that moment suddenly seemed to arrive last week. Out of nowhere, Rogue Music Alliance (RMA), a Vancouver-based independent label that has specialized in Christian music, announced it would release a six-song EP, Deliverance, on April 21st.
Recorded between 2006 and 2008, the tracks — the title song, a four-song suite called "Man Opera" and an extended version of one of those songs, "I Am" — are said to have been co-written and co-produced by Prince and Ian Boxill, a recording engineer who was working with Prince during that period.
After Prince's death, Boxill (who is currently dealing with a death in the family and was unavailable for comment) finished up the tracks with additional production and instrumentation. According to an RMA attorney, Boxill approached the Prince camp — Paisley Park Enterprises and Comerica Bank, the special administrator for the estate — about releasing the music. But financial terms could not be agreed upon and the estate "has been aware that Ian intended to commercialize this work either with or without them," says the attorney.
Yet almost immediately after the announcement of its release, Prince’s camp sued Boxill and was granted a temporary restraining order to halt the sale of the EP. In legal filings, Paisley Park and Comerica claimed the recordings were "Prince's sole and exclusive property" and that Boxill said "he would not use any recordings or property in any way whatsoever" and "would return any such recordings or property to Prince immediately upon request." Although initially put up on sale on services like Amazon Music and iTunes, pre-orders for Deliverance immediately disappeared from those services. At present time, only the title song is only available at a website, Deliverance.is, set up by RMA.
In this exclusive interview, RMA co-founders David Staley and Gabriel Wilson talk about the project and its aftermath.
So how did these tracks wind up with Rogue Music Alliance, especially since Prince had previous contracts with Universal and Warner Brothers?
Wilson: We met Ian through a mutual friend in May of last year, after Prince passed away. Ian is a legend and has a long history with working with Prince. He wasn't interested in releasing any music or anything. It was more just to talk and get to know him. He showed us a couple of tracks as we got to know him. He showed us "Deliverance" and I remember crying at the table when we were talking, because the track was so moving and this was only a few weeks after Prince had passed.
"We certainly expected this would cause a stir and ... there would be some controversy."
There came a point at which [Prince] was interested in releasing the tracks. He'd considered going the major label route or some other avenues. But he reached out to us at RMA and we were blown away to have the opportunity to be trusted with a project of this magnitude on a small indie. Ian said that the things we said about the industry reminded him of the things Prince would say about the industry and the way we viewed equity for artists and artists' rights — that the things artists shouldn't have to give up in order to take their music to market mirrored very closely a lot of things Prince would tell him.
Given that Prince had a spiritual side, did you have any contact with him before this?
Staley: No. We never had any contact with Prince at all.
What was your understanding about the ownership issues of these recordings?
Staley: A lot of the ownership issues I'm not sure we can really address at this point because of the matters at hand.
Wilson: Ian was always very clear that they were co-authors of this work and that's really where the ball got rolling on that front. Ian had co-written and co-produced these songs with Prince.
Given the complications with Prince's previous arrangements with major labels, how concerned were you about entering into these legal waters?
Wilson: We certainly expected this would cause a stir and we figured it was likely there would be some controversy. The potential for there being a controversy and buzz around this wasn't something that scared us off. Obviously we didn't have a crystal ball and couldn't have foreseen exactly what happened. But yeah, we were aware there was a possibility of some controversy.
Staley: We always knew that if Ian as a co-collaborator, co-composer, co-writer, and co-producer had worked on this stuff — and Prince as an independent artist was independent at that time — Ian had all the permission under copyright law and as the copyright holder to release this work. We were always very confident in that and that was why, despite the potential controversy, we were confident to release it.
From what I’ve seen of the original contract between Prince and Boxill, only Boxill signed it, correct?
Staley: If you've seen the contract, you're free to make your own interpretation of it. But we can't speak to that specifically at this time.
When did the release of the EP began taking shape?
Wilson: In late summer of last year. When Ian approached us about wanting to put this music out, what he communicated to us was two-fold. One: at that time there was a lot of swirl in the press about would the family end up getting hit with a massive tax burden around this release, so his intent from the beginning was for this to be a financial blessing, once the heirs are eventually named by the estate. Also, he just really felt that these songs, "Deliverance" in particular, were really timely to everything going on in the world, from the election to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement to terrorist attacks. He thought "Deliverance" the song could be a great memento to Prince's life and hopefully bring a lot of hope and peace and comfort to people with everything that's going on in the world. He hoped Prince's voice could accomplish some of that.
He wanted this to help pay the family's bills?
Staley: That's correct. From the get-go it had always been the majority of both publishing and master recording revenue going to the estate. One of Ian's largest motivations was wanting this to be a blessing to the family once the bank that represents the estate eventually decided who the heirs were. His hopes were that it really would be a financial blessing to them, alleviating the potential tax burden and just providing a blessing to help preserve Prince's legacy.
"We're hopeful that we'll reach a position where everyone is happy and this release can see the light of day."
What additional work did Boxill do on the recordings?
Wilson: Once Ian decided he wanted to move forward with us in conjunction with him, we started the ball rolling on putting the final polish [on] and finishing the work. There was a considerable amount of collaboration he did while Prince was alive, and then he went forward with finishing the work they'd started. On "Deliverance," there's a gospel choir you hear in the track currently but that wasn't cut while Prince was alive. Ian wrote the new melody lines and did the backing vocals with singers and documented it with a couple of session singers and shot it to Prince, and Prince basically gave the sign-off on it. They had always intended to finish that work and notes were made, but obviously that didn't happen.
Did Boxill play you any of his other Prince material in his possession?
Staley: He played us a couple things. I can't really comment to the specifics, but he showed us some of the other things. What I can say is that I agree, from whatever my opinion is worth, that these works feel like ones that should be released. Some of the other ones he played us definitely felt a lot rougher and not ready.
How did he know Prince wanted these particular tracks out?
Staley: I couldn't really speak to that as far as his motivation, but I will say that one of the most compelling reasons we wanted to work with Ian was because of his close relationship with Prince. Here was a guy that was his engineer for about five or six years and he was such close friends with Prince that he would go door to door witnessing with Prince even though Ian wasn't a Jehovah’s Witness himself. He would go to temple with Prince.
They had such a close relationship that when you speak to Ian, he speaks still so deeply attached to his friendship with Prince that for us at RMA we trusted him because of the integrity he had. We knew it wasn't a money grab. If he wanted a "money grab" out of this, he would have released as much material as he could. Instead, he was quite protective and held everything very close to the chest and would always say, "I need to make sure the track is right. Prince wouldn't want this to come out if the track's not right." He would just toil for hours to make sure the track was right.
Wilson: The fact that Ian was willing to withhold the majority of the stuff that he has, and only release a small amount of it, showed us he was very concerned that Prince was honored in the midst of this work and not dishonored by it and that the family was blessed by it.
What were your original release plans?
Wilson: Our release plan was very specific to be a pseudo Beyoncé-style out-of-nowhere publicity bomb. Our original plan was to do that the night before. But as you may have seen, on Tuesday [April 18th], someone who had access to our Soundcloud link leaked one of the songs to Reddit, so we decided on Tuesday afternoon to just pull the trigger and go live with the single and the pre-order.
What was your reaction to the legal blowback?
Staley: While we expected this to definitely cause a stir, we certainly were surprised by the specific legal pushback that came out after this release. We expected there to be some controversy and people to be talking about it but the specific action was a surprise to us.
Paisley Park Enterprises and Comerica Bank filed a temporary restraining order. Where do things stand now?Staley: Nothing has changed in a legal position. There's a partial [enjoining] of the other songs of the EP but not "Deliverance" as the title track. At the moment we can't speak to the specifics of what's going on behind the scenes legally, but those conversations are still evolving. Our legal team is in touch with their legal team and they're endeavoring to work things out and see what kind of arrangement we can come to. The estate is contesting the rights and because of that, there is a lot of reticence from the digital stores like Apple, Google and Amazon to sell it because of the controversy. "Deliverance" is on the radio. Last week we heard from our radio promoter that 56-plus stations are giving it active airtime.
Did you have any direct contact by Prince's family members during this process?
Staley: No, we did not. I'm not sure if Ian did.
What is your next step?
Staley: We're hopeful that we'll reach a position where everyone is happy and this release can see the light of day. That obviously would be our desired outcome. And to be a blessing to the family financially when the estate eventually decided who the heirs are.
Wilson: We currently have a significant number of CDs on hold and obviously we'd love for those to see the light of day. We also have a considerable amount of a limited-edition vinyl we're holding on to and we're hoping that will get the opportunity to see the light of day as well.
How much more material does Boxill have?
Staley: Ian had access to a lot more material that he and Prince had worked on together. But he felt that this small selection was specifically something Prince would have wanted out. He just did not want in any way to put just a mass compilation or a longer album of all the songs he had — things he didn't feel like Prince would have wanted, things he felt were incomplete or couldn't be completed in the way that Prince wanted. That's why we put together a small sampling of things he really felt Prince would have stood behind and that honored his legacy.