Elvis Presley had the Pompadour, James Brown had the cape, and John Lennon had circular-rimmed sunglasses. Prince Rogers Nelson wore the color purple. Every iconic musician since the 1950’s has adopted his or her own trademark look. But only a creative force as genius as Prince could take something as simple and universal as a color and successfully claim it as their undisputable trademark. Prince was an instrumental virtuoso, and a master of genres. At 19, he singlehandedly wrote, composed, arranged, performed, and produced his debut studio album and its follow-up. Over his career, the seven-time Grammy Award winner would release thirty-nine LP’s, and ninety-seven singles, of which 5 scored #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Prince was also the creative mind and lead actor behind the 1984 film Purple Rain, and directed its follow-up. The soundtrack went platinum thirteen times.
Prince also fought hard to protect his art and image. He was a fierce advocate for creative control and artist rights. He expelled two Warner Bros Records executives from the recording session of his debut studio album For You when it was suggested that the song ‘So Blue’ could do with a bass line. This is what Prince had avoided.1 Regardless, Warner kept Prince on its roster and did very well. The relationship may not have been harmonious, but Prince produced what is widely seen as his strongest and most valuable work with the label.
He was a true artist, and could not live comfortably within the confines of contract law. Prince’s first manager, Owen Husney, claimed that not owning his masters after the label recouped and broke even was “completely abhorrent to him.” And when told he could only release so much material at once before oversaturating his audience, he could not understand, for the music just flowed through him.2
In the 1990s, under a storm of media coverage, Prince changed his name to avoid any contractual obligation. The public referred to him, with some humor, as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The ruse did not work initially, so he began appearing in concert, at the BRIT Awards in 1995, and a Today appearance in 1996, with the word “slave” written across his cheek. Warner finally released him from his contract, and eighteen years later, in 2014, signed him over again, this time with a deal that saw him regain ownership of his catalog.
The Internet became the World Wide Web in the late 1990s, and it allowed Prince to connect with fans directly and sell his music on his own terms, a freedom he sought early on. He may have been the first well-known mega-star to do so.3 Later, in 2001, Prince launched his own website, the NPG Club (NPG stands for New Power Generation), which offered exclusives on track sales, including videos, radio show clips, specialty playlists, and preferred concert seats. Prince supported the concept of an integrated website that spanned the entire range of a musician’s output so as to maximize sales’ value. Fifteen years later, streaming service Tidal took a page out of Prince’s book, and, indeed, Prince obliged by removing all other streamed music from competing sites.4
The irony of the Internet was not lost on him, though. It ushered piracy and streaming and with it massive losses in artists’ payments. If Spotify couldn’t pay then his music had no place there. The same reasoning applied to YouTube. In fact, he had excised most of his YouTube videos by the time he died.
If in life he sought to maintain much control over his business, in death he did not. He left no will. This in spite of the opening of a vault at his residence in Paisley Park, Minnesota, that seems to have uncovered enough material to release a new album every year into the next century.5 He must have known he was in danger, for he abused opioids to quell chronic hip pain and maintain his punishing touring schedule.
Now the value of Prince’s estate is of concern to others, not to him. And because of his latest deal with Warner, in which he gave the major distribution rights over his music, one of the big beneficiaries is his erstwhile foe. The Very Best of Prince hit #1 on the charts in the week after his death on April 21, and as much as 3.5 million album and song sales happened three days after. Two weeks later, eight of Prince’s albums re-entered the Billboard 200.
By Michael Kostaras
1., 2., 3. Newman, M. (2016, May 7). “Slave” and Masters. Billboard Magazine.
4. Breihan, T. (2015, December 23). Prince Ex- plains Why Tidal Will Win The Streaming Wars. Retrieved from Stereogum: http://www.stereogum.com/1850356/prince-explains-why-tidal-will-win-the-streaming-wars/news/
5. Azhar, M. (2015, March 19). I would hide 4 U: what’s in Prince’s secret vault? Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/mar/19/i-would-hide-4-u-whats-in-princes-secret-vault
ABC News. (2016, April 30). Prince’s music vault reportedly drilled open. Retrieved from WCVB5: http://www.wcvb.com/news/princes-music-vault-reportedly-drilled-open/39297356?src=app
Christman, E. (2016, May 7). Prince’s Musical Afterworld. Billboard Magazine.
Davis, L. K. (2016, April 21). Prince Fought Big Labels For Ownership, Artistic Control. Retrieved from NBC News: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/prince-fought-big-labels-ownership-artistic-control-n560161
Sisario, B. (2016, April 21). How Prince Rebelled Against the Music Industry. Retrieved from New York Times: http:// www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/arts/music/prince-a-hit-maker-and-master-of-his-own-music.html
Stutz, C. (2015, July 1). Prince Removes Music From Most Streaming Services — Except TIDAL. Retrieved from Billboard: http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6613309/ prince-removes-music-from-most-streaming-services-except-tidal