In the midst of leaving timeless music, the late Prince Rodger Nelson led the revolution(no pun intended) against his employer Warner Bros Records for the rights of his music catalog. The 30 year feud between Prince and his former label became nasty to where Warner Bros even owned his government name!
The feud between the two parties started when Prince signed a historic 100 million dollar deal in 1991, with a guarantee 10 million dollar advance for every album. Possibly one of the biggest contract for a solo artist. The deal within it self was historic. Prince probably had every reason to party like its 1999 with so much bank he was gonna be generating. But soon as the handshake was over and his name was inked on the dotted line, he had a feeling he may have made the biggest mistake of his career.
The advance looked sweet on paper, but the cold reality was that Warner Bros OWNED Prince. They owned his catalog, they owned his publishing, his creative control and even his GOVERNMENT NAME. There was a contractual clause which awarded Warner Bros the rights to his masters dating back to 1978. Like many artists before him, Prince was stuck in a battle between fighting for his career and staying relevant with the forever changing musical landscape. He didn’t have no leverage to really stand his ground because he was running the budgets dry, He with the maintenance of his 10 million dollar Paisley studio complex , lavish spending on shows and keeping his entourage paid took a toll on his cash flow.
Record contracts are just like — I’m gonna say the word — slavery
The fight to stay relevant in music was just as difficult as battling these corporations for the rights of your music. Music had changed dramatically from the time Prince and his rival Michael Jackson emerged on the scene. Black Music at the time was looked upon as more edgy, more rebellious, and aggressive due to the emergence of West Coast rap scene in 1993. Young blacks didn’t want to rock with 80s heroes such as Michael Jackson or Prince, they were seen as “Hollywood” or “turning too white”. R&B was even changing as well.
Warner Bros jumped on that smear campaign to demean Prince and derail his momentum to protect their business. The campaign of him being ” crazy” or “disgruntled employee” ran throughout the industry at the time. Shows such as In Living Color had made mockeries out of him and he like many icons from the 80s faced that possibility of irrelevancy.
Stuck in the hole for 10 albums, Prince knew he had to plead his case to the masses. He wanted to show that these labels weren’t playing the game fair and he wanted to expose their treachery to the world. Instead of following Warner’s orders of releasing an album every 2 years, he released one once a year. He also had to regroup his resources and funded his own NPG Records since Warner Bros took ownership of Paisley Park records. He took an even riskier move and changed his name to a symbol showcasing his appreciation to the “Ankh” and also stood for amalgamation of the male/female ‘love’ symbols .
Prince explained that he changed his name to the moniker so he can possibly gain some leverage over his contract with Warner Bros and seek a possible void within the clause. Since they owned the Prince name and every thing associated with it, Prince was searching through every possible loophole to free himself from the clutches of Warner Bros and stay current at the same time.
Over the years he would dig in his 500 song vault and just release albums so he can fulfill the 10 album agreement. But despite facing a decline in the states, his popularity overseas hasn’t faded a bit. He sold out Wembley stadium in less than one hour in 1993 selling out 75,000 seats. This showed that even though Prince may have been losing ground in America, He still had support from the rest of the world.
But the obligations took years to meet and the strained relationship started to take its toll. Warner Bros also lost millions during this fight and purposely released a Greatest Hits album along with B Sides to recoup the damage . Prince heavily resented the idea of ever releasing a greatest hits album because it would signify the end of an artist career or as he put it “livelihood”. In response, Prince refused to write any more new material for Warner Bros, but when Warner Bros discovered new master tapes of his unreleased album “The Black Album” It enraged Prince. The Black Album was something Prince never wanted to see a light of day and argued that he had enough music recorded to fulfill the obligations. He released Come in 1994 which was his lowest selling album to date and Prince at this point became creatively burnt.
Hoping to rebound in 1995 and revamp his career, Prince focused on releasing The Gold Experience. He wanted to release the album on his 37th birthday in 1994 but the label refused him. The relationship between Prince and Warner became damage beyond repair at this point. Warner Bros put a block on him performing his classic material on tour which made it complicated to sell out tours overseas. With no label support, Prince spent two million dollars of his own money to push and promote the hit that literally saved his career. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World was released as a first single for the album and it was on top of the UK charts throughout 1994 . The slow grooving ballad was dedicated to his then finance Mayte Garcia and became a worldwide hit. The song became first big hit Prince ever had using his new moniker. UK became a heavy supporter of Prince’s war against the machine, they gave him outlets to express his grievances towards his employer in interviews wearing masks.
Chaos and Disorder was the appropriate title to describe Prince’s career and relationship with Warner Bros at the time. This was a collection of songs he had hand-picked from his vault for them to use so he can fulfill his obligations and move on The album cover alone was reflective of a covered mess and neither of the parties nor Prince or Warner Bros promoted it. The album was met with mixed reviews, but Prince couldn’t have been happier because this meant that he no longer had to deal with Warner Bros and was now a free.
“The Internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you”.
Prince nightmare with Warner Bros had him so distrusting of the music industry that he pulled out all of the stops to protect his music. He would do one album deals with Warner Bros rivals(which was smart) and found ways of maneuvering his albums from getting hit with piracy. He created a website and sold 277,000 copies at 50 dollars per album with his Crystal Ball release. He also found ways to include his album Musicology album alongside ticket sales for his shows and made double back.
25 percent, or 158,000 copies, of Musicology’s total sales were through concert tickets, priced at $75-$85 dollars. Prince’s team would pull aggressive tactics in making sure that YouTube, I Tunes, Daily Motion, Soundcloud, don’t get any hands on his material because he knew there weren’t no advance money for it. He aligned himself with JayZ’s streaming service Tidal to showcase unification amongst black artists owning their own property.
Prince ended up receiving his back catalog from Warner Bros in 2014 after a grueling 20 year war and continued to urge young artists to not be deceived by these labels whom are only out for your intellectual property. He stood his ground in a fight where many would have buckled and kept his relevancy. Prince’s war with Warner Bros and his battle until death with these streaming sites was deeper than writing “Slave” on his cheek. He led a revolutionary fight and like many around his time, from Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, Chuck D, carried the cross so many wouldn’t bare.
Even though he’s gone physically, Prince’s impact in the business is everlasting. Young artists should study his blueprint on how he fought to the end for what was his blood, sweat, and tears. He was a man who truly lived, breathed, and died for the art, for that he should be saluted.
Vic Da Ruler