On April 18, a piece of news began to ripple through the internet: Deliverance, an EP of never-before-heard music from Prince, was to be released on April 21, 2017, the one-year anniversary of the musician’s death.
It was something music fans around the world had been hoping for. A peek into Prince’s legendary vault of unreleased material stored at Paisley Park, the late artist’s home/studio/playpen. At first, it all seemed promising. There was a short, colorful video featuring the familiar silhouette of the Purple One playing his custom-built “Cloud” guitar, soundtracked by a blues-funk tune that had the choppy drive and sleek sound that marked the latter portion of his career.
But an important detail was missing from every bit of news about Deliverance: namely, any to reference Warner Brothers or NPG Records, the two labels that have released Prince’s music since 2014. Nor was there any mention of the approval of Paisley Park Enterprises or the late musician’s estate. Instead, this mysterious EP was being overseen by the curiously named Rogue Music Alliance, an independent media and marketing company based in, of all places, Vancouver, Washington.
It didn’t take long for the hammer to drop. Within 24 hours, Paisley Park and Comerica Bank, the executor of Prince’s estate, filed a restraining order blocking the sale of Deliverance. As of today, that injunction from the US District Court judge in Minnesota remains in place, and countless boxes containing CD and vinyl copies of Deliverance remain unopened.
The questions surrounding this crazy series of events still linger. How did this minor player in the music business wind up with this holy grail of a release? And what were they thinking trying to do an end run around Prince’s estate and label? Much like everything concerning the artist’s illustrious career, it’s a colorful mosaic of secrecy, controversy, religion, and a whole lot of money.
On a pleasantly balmy day, not long after Deliverance slipped into and out of existence, six men stand around a tall table in a nicely appointed apartment in downtown Vancouver, drinking mimosas and trying to determine which one of them is Hitler.
This isn’t some experiment in Godwin’s Law, but rather a bunch of dudes enjoying a round of Secret Hitler, a hidden identity board game conceived by the folks behind Cards Against Humanity. It’s become a favorite pastime of the gents who run Rogue Music Alliance, and before I can sit down and talk with them about everything that’s happened over the past few weeks, I have to play.
The rules are simple enough: One of the people playing the game is Hitler and it’s up to everyone else to figure out who before his policies are put into place. The trick is that another player is also a secret fascist working to help the chancellor’s cause. For 20 minutes, I was that fascist.
The game goes by as most board games do: lots of shouting, high fives, and a healthy amount of alcohol consumption. It also has the feel of a team-building exercise at a corporate retreat: Either they want to emphasize to the stranger in the room that they’re all in this together, or they just want to make sure I can hang.
Everything about the scene I step into—the apartment, the board game, and the men themselves—tells you almost everything you need to know about the Rogue Music Alliance (RMA). The decor of the flat is a little too perfect, like one of the model spaces in an IKEA showroom. The spotless kitchen features a bevy of handsome liquor bottles lined up above the cabinets. The flat-screen TV in the sitting room displays a slow loop of nature videos. Bookshelves are neatly filled with vinyl LPs and a library of popular psychology and self-help books like Made to Stick alongside hipster spiritual tomes like Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.
Even before spotting that Miller book and the contemporary Christian records displayed prominently above the TV, I’ve marked them as men of faith from our first handshakes. They have the perfectly coiffed yet hipster-casual style of the leaders at the more liberal churches I’ve attended (fashionable clothing, conspicuously clean-cut hairdos). It was no surprise, then, to learn that Gabriel Wilson and David Staley, the two men who started RMA, both come from the Christian music world.
Wilson began his music career as the leader of the Listening, a contemporary Christian group that got its start in the early ’00s in Longview, Washington. The band spent much of its existence grinding it out on the road, touring upwards of 200 days a year in the US and Europe.
“Living in a van all that time was crazy,” he remembers. “But our band just never got to that next stage.”
Instead, Wilson decided to try to make it happen for other artists. After a stint leading the worship band at Bethel Church in Redding, California, he teamed up with Staley, who ran a company that set up video streaming services for churches. With the creation of RMA, the pair turned their attention and business acumen toward public relations for Christian artists.
As a company, RMA is doing all the right things to cut through the static of our accelerated culture. Sometimes an artist will come to them looking for a hand to guide them through every step of the process, from recording to distribution. More often, they work to help established acts take control of how their music is handled. A typical deal with RMA includes helping set up a small record label for the artist and splitting marketing costs—and profits—with them.
Those efforts, combined with RMA’s aggressive social media campaigns, paid off quickly, pushing artists like Lindy Conant and bluegrass duo Joey and Rory to the top of Billboard’s Christian chart. With their successes came a lot of industry chatter about what RMA were up to—buzz that would lead them into the world of Prince.
One person following their work with some interest was recording engineer George Ian Boxill who, since the ’90s, has worked on sessions for an array of R&B and hip-hop artists, ranging from icons (Gladys Knight, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony) to more ignominious artists like former Beverly Hills, 90210 cast member Brian Austin Green. His biggest accomplishment to date, however, was being behind the mixing board for the sessions that yielded Prince’s 2006 album 3121 and its follow-up, Planet Earth.
Initially, Boxill reached out to RMA after reading an interview with Staley and Wilson. He enjoyed their bold proclamations, like the one on their kitschy, 8-bit video game-style website: “We believe that artists should no longer be slaves to exploitative record contracts.”
“I remember [Ian] calling,” Staley says, “and saying, ‘The things that you say about the industry are the same things that Prince would say. I swear you say some of the exact same sentences as him. I think he would want to release his work through you if he was alive today.’” (Boxill declined to be interviewed for this story.)
A few months later, Boxill reached out to Wilson and Staley with an almost unbelievable offer. He had been sitting on material that he and Prince supposedly co-wrote together and started recording during the Planet Earth sessions, but ultimately abandoned. Would RMA be interested in helping finish these tracks and release them, as both a gift for fans and to help relieve the tax burden that Prince’s heirs would soon face?
This is where things get a little weird.
“The night before I got the call, I had a dream,” remembers Wilson, still sounding a little awestruck. “Almost like your classic nightmare, but not really a nightmare, like it’s peaceful. I had a dream where Prince met me in this corridor of doors. He walks out of the door on the left, looks at me and motions with his head to follow him. He smiles. And I follow him as he leads me into a door on the right. And I wake up. Later that day, Ian calls.
“It wasn’t until we were completing the masters that I finally get the guts to tell Ian about this dream. When I do, he starts to cry and he’s like, ‘I had the same dream. Only he walked me into a room and there was somebody in there. I wonder if that somebody was you.’”
With the go-ahead from Boxill, RMA funded sessions in Los Angeles to put the finishing touches on the tracks, complete with a full gospel choir (the in-house choir for multiple seasons of The Voice) and some Hammond organ work from Charles Jones, a studio musician who had turned down an offer to join a band Prince was putting together a decade earlier.
The finished product feels very much in line with Prince’s music in the ’00s—a heavy blues sound given humor and light by working gospel and funk flavor into the mix. For Deliverance, the emphasis was on the spiritual side. The core of the EP is “Man Opera,” a humble and unreservedly worshipful four-part suite that flows from leaden bar-band rock (albeit with much better guitar playing) to more nimble, velvety grooves that blend well with its awed lyrics (“Heed what I say, God/Reach out and touch me”).
Pleasantly listenable as it all is, I couldn’t shake the feeling while hearing these tracks that Prince would likely never have wanted these songs out in the world—at least not like this. The production slathered on by Boxill and RMA is far too busy, with an abundance of strings and multi-tracked guitar parts that run against Prince’s otherwise minimalist tendencies. More than that, there are several points in “Man Opera” where his voice breaks and he strains for a note he can’t reach. It’s startling to hear, like running into your grade school teacher at the grocery store. It just does not compute.
There’s also some question as to whether Prince was ready to put out a record as faith-driven as this. The primary tension of his career was always a combination of the corporeal and the spiritual—the desire to achieve salvation while also getting some ass. Even The Rainbow Children, the 2001 album that focused on his becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, finds him singing of a “sensual everafter” and, in “She Loves Me 4 Me,” speaking reverently of a partner while also letting us know “she got the ride that I like 2 ride.” During our conversation, Wilson insists that Boxill told him Prince was aiming to leave his secular music behind. Considering everything Prince released from 1978 on, I remain unconvinced.
Whatever Prince’s original intentions with these tracks were, RMA wanted Deliverance to go far and wide. They made deals for physical and digital distribution, including an agreement with Urban Outfitters to carry the first pressing of the vinyl version (to be sold for an outrageous $39.98). They enlisted the services of Rogers & Cowan, a publicity firm whose clients include Britney Spears and the Rolling Stones, which helped them set up premieres for Deliverance tracks on Today and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. And they planned to spend more than $100,000 for a social media blitz that would happen during the week of the EP’s release.
Every step of the process was logical, if a tad expensive, for a release of this caliber. But RMA simply had no legal right to do it.
To date, Boxill has yet to provide any substantive proof that he is, in fact, a co-writer of the material on Deliverance. And according to the confidentiality agreement he signed in 2004, anything he worked on with Prince “shall remain Paisley [Park’s] sole and exclusive property [and] shall not be used... in any way whatsoever.”
On top of that, there are no clear answers about whether Boxill or anyone at RMA made anything more than minor efforts to reach out to Paisley Park or the executors of Prince’s estate. In our conversation at their offices, Wilson insisted they had conversations for six months with Bremer Bank—the institution originally enlisted to handle Prince’s affairs in the wake of his death—and everything was amicable. But according to Marcia Jensen, the marketing and communications director at Bremer, those continued talks never happened.
“I was contacted by someone in May of 2016 who identified himself as a colleague of Mr. Boxill,” she said recently. “He said they had 10 fully recorded tracks that they wanted to complete and release. And that they believed they had them legally. What I asked that person to do was send me an email with all the details. I did not get any follow up.”
When pressed on that issue in a follow-up interview a couple of months later, Wilson changes his tune a bit, stating that they didn’t start moving forward with Boxill until late June, and what he really meant was that Boxill’s people were in touch with Bremer to discuss placing Deliverance’s title track on the soundtrack for Nate Parker’s 2016 film Birth of a Nation. He then quickly changed the subject with a mixture of aggravation and exhaustion.
“If you notice, no one is contesting [Boxill’s] rights to the copyright or his rights to be a co-writer with Prince or a co-owner of the masters,” he insists. “The only thing being contested here is the confidentiality agreement. Bremer never raised that position.”
The question no one seems to be able to answer is why RMA went ahead with this in the first place. Having dealt with so much of the legal maneuverings needed to get an album released and get their artists paid, why did they try to dodge Paisley Park’s approval? When Wilson and Staley spoke with Rolling Stone about this, their response was almost coy, claiming that they “expected there to be some controversy and people to be talking about it, but the specific [lawsuit] was a surprise to us.” Surely they couldn’t have been that naïve?
“It’s a fair question,” Wilson said. “And that is something I would probably ask in your shoes. We weren’t planning to get shut down. It happened very swiftly, with the digital services pulling it from their stores before there was even a court order. We were like, ‘This is crazy.’ I do think we expected it to be disruptive, but never destructive. And it’s in our heart that this was never a destructive piece.”
It’s not hard to feel for the guys at RMA. Not only are they sitting on boxes and boxes of CDs and vinyl copies of Deliverance that they can’t do anything with, but they’re also being put on the cultural map in a way they never intended. Their moment of triumph turned into ongoing legal battles that, as of now, will only allow the title track from the EP to be streamed and purchased. When they speak of how honored they are to be working with Prince—even in this removed fashion—it doesn’t sound like bullshit.
That becomes even clearer when they offer to play me a copy of the vinyl pressing of Deliverance. For the whole of its running time, Wilson, Staley, and the rest of the RMA crew don’t say a word. They bob their heads to the upbeat sections, playing a little air drums or keyboards. They bow their heads reverently during the restrained moments.
Then, tacked on to the end, is an unlisted bonus track of Prince, playing acoustic guitar and singing the scratch track that Boxill would eventually turn into “I Am,” the opening section of the “Man Opera.” The weight of his untimely death is felt even more acutely, and I feel fortunate to have heard it.
But for anyone else to be able to experience such a powerful moment, it’s going to take a huge change of heart from Paisley Park or some kind of divine intervention. After getting to know the gents at the Rogue Music Alliance, it’s pretty clear which one of those they’re banking on.