David Staley and Gabriel Wilson are easy to spot on the streets of downtown Vancouver.
They’re the duo usually hanging outside Compass Coffee clad in all black. Wilson rocks a dark blazer and sports a curly mane of hair. Staley has on skinny jeans and a zip-up hoodie with a Chance The Rapper “3” hat.
Both lean more L.A. than PNW.
Their business? The Rogue Music Alliance, or RMA, is behind a nondescript door. The only marker is a sign taped to the front: “Warning, Security Cameras In Use.”
A short hallway leads to the hidden studio space Wilson and Staley fondly call “Feng Sway.” They co-own the studio with local musician Patrick Tetreault.
A collection of guitars, amps, keyboards and a separated drum room fill the cavernous space that used to be an art gallery. Old Persian rugs and exposed brick give the room a funky bohemian vibe.
“This is basically where I produce and edit and mix from,” said Wilson. “Artists will just be out on the floor, it’s very conversational.”
Wilson and Staley formed RMA two years ago when they met in Redding, California, over a shared passion for music equity. They moved to Vancouver and rented an office above the studio space that also doubles as Staley’s bedroom.
“I live right in there,” said Staley, pointing to an open door. “And this is our pseudo listening room until we get a more pro one.”
The whole setup is the kind of thing you’d expect from Los Angeles, New York or even Portland. But Vancouver?
“Vancouver’s a great community,” said Wilson, a self-described Goonie who grew up in Astoria. He bounced around Longview, Nashville and parts of California before settling in Battle Ground, where he now lives with his five kids.
“It reminds me of Alberta in the mid-90s where there’s a lot of dilapidated buildings that are getting developed and young entrepreneurs moving in,” he said about relocating to Vancouver. “It just made all the sense in the world.”
The independent label is far from conventional: Its website looks like a pixelated 1980s video game and an online description calls the company “a collection of pirates, hackers, artists and bohemian resistance fighters.”
“I’d say hackers more in the like Silicon Valley growth hackers sense of the word, versus the anonymous trying to take down PayPal sense of the word,” Staley explained.
“We’re talking more about life hacks, artist hacks,” Wilson added. “Ways to hack your way into the industry without giving up the equity in your work.”
The label mostly handles Christian music — Wilson describes himself as a songwriter and worship leader on his website. And before last month, they were largely unknown to the public.
That all changed when they tried to release a six-song album of previously unreleased music by Prince on the anniversary of the late icon's death. The songs, recorded between 2006 and 2008 were a collaboration between Prince and his sound engineer Ian Boxill. According to Staley and Wilson, they met Boxill through a mutual friend last year.
“When we first met Ian, it was not regarding his desire to release any music from Prince, it was just getting to know him,” Wilson explained. “He literally said to us, it was like the best thing ever, he said, ‘A lot of the things you say about the industry, Prince said about the industry. And the way you view the way music business should go, Prince viewed it the same way.’”
It was no secret that Prince had a complicated relationship with the music industry, protesting major labels and even going so far as to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol. He also left behind hundreds of unreleased songs. Court documents reveal Boxill has at least two hard drives full of recordings.
Shortly after the record was released, RMA and Boxill were slapped with a lawsuit by Prince’s estate, accusing Boxill of violating the terms of his agreement with the late star. U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright in Minnesota granted a temporary restraining order to Paisley Park Enterprises to halt the release.
On Thursday, Prince’s estate agreed to pay a $1 million bond to continue blocking the album’s release. The federal judge in Minnesota has until May 22 to rule on whether the temporary restraining order becomes permanent.
“It almost goes without saying that if an independent record label is going to put out an unreleased Prince project, it’s definitely going to cause some conversation and cause some buzz,” said Staley.
But the controversy has also given way to exposure for the Vancouver label. The two were recently interviewed by Rolling Stone and the story made national headlines. Something that Staley, who manages the business, appreciates.
“I think we find ourselves in an interesting place where this release is causing a lot of conversations to happen at a national scale about rights of artists, specifically with posthumous work,” he said. “Who should be in control of that — should it be the bankers and the lawyers or should it be the creative collaborators who knew the artist best?”
But some, like Ben McLane, an entertainment attorney based in Los Angeles, are more skeptical of RMA’s motives.
“Somebody just came out of the woodwork just to cash in,” said McLane who had never heard of the label RMA. “It’s like, ‘Oh let’s put this out and see if we can make some quick money.’ That’s what I’m guessing is going on here.”
His law firm, McLane & Wong, specializes in music rights. He said blocking the album release makes sense until the judge can sort out who exactly owns what.
“Whoever claims they have the exclusive rights to this wants to control the flow of that,” said McLane. “And that’s a big deal because once it’s out, it’s out.”
In a recent court filing, RMA says its invested half a million dollars to promote the album and have been forced to cancel appearances on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" and "Today Show." Before a federal judge halted the release of the album, the "Deliverance EP" was the top selling pre-order on iTunes and the single “Deliverance” was the no. 1 rock single.
Back at the RMA studio, the record at the center of the company’s legal woes sits on a shelf. It’s printed on translucent gold vinyl and held in a bright purple sleeve, a shade long synonymous with the late artist.
Wilson and Staley hope the album — and their cases of ordered CDs — will eventually see the light of day. But for now, the record remains a display, unplayable and unsellable.