In 1977, Prince was sequestered at the Record Plant in Sausalito, Calif., recording what would become For You, the 19-year-old’s debut album for Warner Bros. Records. For two months, he had kept the label heads in the dark, so executives Lenny Waronker and Russ Thyret decided to pay their new artist a visit.
Listening to track-in-progress “So Blue,” an impressed Waronker commented on how good it would sound after the bass was added. Prince interjected, “There is no bass on that song. Get out of my studio!,” tossing out the very folks who were footing his bills.
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It was Prince’s first contentious bout with Warner Bros., but it would be far from his last fight with the record companies or the Internet and the music industry in general. Until his death on April 21, Prince bucked up against a system that gave the least amount of power and money to the people it couldn’t live without, the music creators. Even though he demanded — and received — complete artistic freedom from the start, Prince wanted control over every facet of his music and would go to drastic ends to try to achieve it.
Whether his actions made him a courageous renegade or a petulant rock star — and there are people who label him both — there’s no denying that throughout his career, he raised awareness for artist rights and fearlessly set his own course in getting his music to his audience. Other acts such as Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and Chance the Rapper have taken cues from him by releasing albums directly to their fans and defying traditional distribution routes.
“He drew attention to the issue of artists controlling their own destiny,” says Gary Stiffelman, Prince’s attorney from 1988 to 1994, “and he furthered the message as much or more than anyone.”
Warner Bros., which was home to his biggest successes, including 1984’s 13-times-platinum Purple Rain soundtrack, gave Prince wide latitude, even pulling 1987’s now-infamous Black Album from stores at his insistence after he had demanded its release. But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the label, chafing at any perceived restraints, despite Warner Bros.’ deserved reputation as the most artist-friendly label, an ethos that emanated from the office of CEO Mo Ostin down through the ranks.
More than once, Prince pleaded with a label ally, Warner Bros. vp special projects for black music Marylou Badeaux, to convince her bosses to let him release everything he brought to them, even if the record company was still marketing the previous album. “I would tell him that it was counterproductive, that people can only absorb so much music from one artist at a time,” she says. “His answer was, ‘What am I supposed to do? The music just flows through me.’ “
If Prince couldn’t get Warner Bros. to bend to his whims when it came to releasing his music as frequently as he desired, he at least wanted the compensation and recognition he saw his peers receiving. “He wanted a deal that was of the magnitude that some other artists were getting at the time,” says Jill Willis, who co-managed Prince from 1991 to 1993. Among those artists were labelmate Madonna and Epic’s Michael Jackson, with whom he was fiercely competitive, according to Ostin (see story, right).
The 1992 contract, which included Warner/Chappell Music Publishing, covered six albums and allowed him to release up to one new album a year, a $10 million advance per album and a 25 percent royalty rate. It also turned Prince’s Paisley Park Records from a vanity imprint into a joint venture with Warner Bros. Without consulting Warner Bros., Prince’s publicist put out a press release touting the deal’s estimated $100 million value. It got the desired attention: The lead of the Los Angeles Times‘ story about the new pact read, “Eat your hearts out, Michael Jackson and Madonna.”
But Prince still wasn’t happy. “He really wanted to release the music in a way that was inconsistent with the contract,” says Stiffelman. “He wanted to put out an album whenever the urge struck him, and it could be a three-song album or a 70-song album.”
Additionally, not owning his masters became a sore point. That a label could recoup its expenses and still own an artist’s masters was “completely abhorrent to him,” says Prince’s first manager, Owen Husney. With his frustration mounting, in 1993 Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph that first appeared on the “Love Symbol Album,” erroneously hoping that his record contract might not be enforceable if he was, titularly at least, no longer Prince.
As it became clear that Prince, who now was referred to as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, would have to fulfill his contract, he took his protest to the court of public opinion. He appeared with the word “slave” written on his cheek repeatedly, including on Today in 1996 and at the 1995 BRIT Awards. His acceptance speech: “Prince. In concert: perfectly free. On record: slave.”
To Warner Bros. staffers, the extreme move cut to the quick. “It felt like getting punched in the solar plexus,” says one former high-ranking Warner Bros. executive. “Especially all the racial connotations… That just wasn’t who we were.”
“His anger at us came out of his obsession with ownership of his own work,” says Ostin. (In 2014, Warner Bros. gave back Prince’s masters, under the terms of a new deal that also had Prince release two new albums through the label.)
Prince tried to get other acts to rally around him in the fight for contract reform, but failed. “He was forever trying to persuade other artists to do the same,” says Stiffelman. “This truly was a cause, not just ‘I want to make more money.’ ”
Following his mutual release from Warner Bros. in 1996, Prince hopscotched from record company to record company, distributing albums through his NPG label (Paisley Park had folded in 1994) on EMI, Universal, Arista, Columbia and Republic. He had ownership of his masters for the new recordings and could control the distribution timetable, but neither his innovation nor his fights were over.
Eager to find a way to control the pipeline, Prince was the first artist to sell albums directly to the fans on the Internet. In 1997, he came to then-manager Jacqui Thompson with the idea of offering his Crystal Ball box set through phone and Internet preorders, a move that entrepreneur Anil Dash correctly labeled on Twitter as a precursor to crowdfunding.
“He did it on the time frame that he wanted. That’s what made him happy,” explains Thompson, who says that the set went on to sell 250,000 copies through traditional and nontraditional retail.
Eager to deal directly with fans, Prince launched the NPG Music Club in 2001 in “this brave new online world,” as he put it. The membership website offered exclusive tracks, videos, radio shows, albums, specialty playlists and preferred concert seating. As the Internet expanded, so did his love-hate relationship with the web. He sought tighter controls on his music, pulling it from YouTube and other outlets, often one violation at a time. In 2007, Universal, which administered his music publishing, targeted a YouTube clip of a baby dancing as “Let’s Go Crazy” played in the background, saying it violated Prince’s copyright, according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Around the same time, Prince released a statement announcing his intent to “reclaim his art on the Internet.” The baby’s mother sued (with help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation), citing lawful fair use, and won.
He also explored other distribution means. Fans buying tickets to his 2004 concert tour received a copy of new album Musicology (this resulted in Billboard and Nielsen Music revising their policy on albums bundled with tickets). In 2007, he gave away Planet Earth to 2 million readers of the Sunday edition of U.K. newspaper The Mail.
He was relentless in his pursuit of getting his music to his fans in a way that he felt still allowed for proper compensation. To that end, in July 2015, he pulled his songs from all streaming services except for Tidal, which exclusively released his last two albums, HITnRUN Phase One and HITnRUN Phase Two, in 2015.
“He opened the door for artists to be more free thinking about how they want their music to come out,” says Stiffelman.
No doubt, had he lived, Prince would have continued to push up against the status quo. As he said in his 2004 induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “When I first started out in the music industry, I was most concerned with freedom. Freedom to produce, freedom to play all the instruments on my records, freedom to say anything I wanted to.” That obsession remained until the end.
Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.
This article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of Billboard.