By any measure, Prince was rock star royalty. That includes his wealth.
The prolific musician leaves behind a vast legacy of genre-bending albums and gender-bending fashion statements — and an estate said to be worth about $300 million, making him one of the most valuable entertainers in the world.
It’s still unclear who will end up inheriting the singer-guitarist’s fortune. Whoever takes control stands to benefit handsomely from a song library, including hits like “1999" and “When Doves Cry,” that is only expected to soar in value in the years ahead.
Prince, who died Thursday at 57, is poised to join a rarefied field of singer-songwriter artists like Michael Jackson, John Lennon and Bob Marley, who continue to make money well after their deaths.
However, Prince’s music is expected to remain the cornerstone of his estate — and one that he defended closely as digital shifts turned the recording industry upside down. Prince scored dozens of top 40 hits throughout his career and sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Then there’s the potential windfall from the famed “vault” of unreleased material housed at Paisley Park.
“There’s tremendous value there,” said Martin Neumann, an estate planning lawyer and partner at the Los Angeles firm Weinstock Manion. “For someone like Prince who’s been around for so long, obviously the value of his catalog will increase after his death, significantly more so than for other people.”
Ownership of an enduring song catalog by artists like Prince, U2 and Billy Joel can produce steady, robust income streams that other entertainers, such as Hollywood actors, typically can’t rely on. Only a select group of actor-producers, including Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, are said to be worth more than Prince.
That’s especially true for the estate of Michael Jackson, which controls the late singer’s master recordings, along with his name and likeness. The estate has generated more than $1 billion in revenue since his 2009 death by licensing his brand and music — including for the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show “Michael Jackson One” — and releasing new material, according to Forbes.
Jackson proved to be an especially prescient deal maker when it came to owning famous songs. Jackson’s heirs recently agreed to sell their half of Sony/ATV, the publishing company that owns most of the Beatles catalog, to Sony Music Entertainment for $750 million. Jackson in 1985 paid $47.5 million for Beatles publisher ATV Music, which he later merged with Sony’s publishing arm.
Prince was the master of his own economic destiny in a way that is virtually unmatched in today’s music business. He owned his recording and publishing copyrights and often played nearly every instrument on his tracks. That gave him an unmatched level of control over his fate even as the record business changed around him.
“It’s a very unusual situation,” said Matt Pincus, chief executive of Songs Music Publishing. “I can’t imagine a catalog that would have a higher value.”
The fate of Prince’s fortune remains to be seen.
“He was meticulous about maintaining control of his copyrights,” said Laura Zwicker, a partner at Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger who counsels high-net-worth individuals. “The question is, was he that careful about what would happen if he wasn’t there?”
Analysts said those who take charge of the Prince estate could make and release albums of previously unheard material, taking a page from the Tupac Shakur playbook. The estate could also reap rewards by licensing the singer’s music and name to film, television and Broadway productions. Prince was, after all, a film star thanks to the 1984 movie “Purple Rain.”
But estates differ widely in the ways they choose to make money from the catalogs of late celebrities. Jimi Hendrix’s heirs have kept a tight grip on uses of the legendary guitarist’s music — so much so that a recent Hendrix biopic starring Andre 3000 had to settle for cover versions of other artists’ songs for its musical numbers. The Hendrix estate is valued at an estimated $80 million.
He pulled his catalog from services like Spotify last year, leaving Jay Z’s Tidal as the sole major music streaming company that could play his most popular music. In an age where free music is ubiquitous online, Prince took pains to make that sure his songs and performances could not be found on YouTube. He even tried to sue fans for linking to bootleg concert videos on social media sites.
Perhaps most famous were his tensions with record label Warner Bros. Records in the mid-1990s, when he appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his face to protest what he considered to be unfair treatment by the company. He broke with Warner Bros. in 1996, only to return 18 years later in a deal that gave him control of his master recordings.
Prince’s death comes at a time when the dynamics of the music industry have made it harder for artists to grow a massive trove of riches like Prince’s.
One issue is that songwriting credit is often shared among multiple people, meaning that royalties are increasingly divided. Even the most bankable singer-songwriters working now — think Taylor Swift — share songwriting credit with a stable of collaborators. The website CelebrityNetWorth.com estimates Swift’s value at $280 million, Justin Bieber at $200 million and Adele at $75 million — all less than Prince. The estate of the late David Bowie, another genre-bending musician, was worth about $100 million at the time of his death, according to the Associated Press.
Prince, however, banked mainly on his music and his image.
“Building that sort of superstar brand is something you just don’t see happening the same way today,” said David Bakula, an analyst with Nielsen Music. “You have your Adeles and Taylor Swifts, but they’re a little bit fewer and farther between.”
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