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Musical icon, innovator and artistic genius Prince died suddenly on Thursday at age 57. He was a pioneer in the industry for his business acumen, shedding his given name and adopting an unpronounceable symbol during a dispute with his label, Warner Brothers, in the 1990s and then later retaking the name and regaining control of the masters to his classic recordings.
The outsized impact of Prince’s career extends from his music to the evolution of his personal brand and business model — he was among the first to release albums only on the Internet, and utilized crowd funding, subscription services and other creative distribution methods years before they were embraced by the industry as a whole.
“In the early 2000s, he was away from a major record deal and very much running his career on his own” recalled Scott LeGere, head of the music business department at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota, who previously worked at Prince’s Paisley Park recording studio. “Now that we pause and reflect, that model really mirrors what independents and even major artists are looking at today.”
LeGere, who jokingly referred to himself as the “lowest guy on the totem pole” at Paisley Park, appeared Friday on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM to discuss Prince’s life and legacy. Joining him were NPR music critic Tom Moon and Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
Crowdsourcing before Kickstarter
Prince was the rare artist who wrote, produced and performed his work, but he also cultivated and promoted up-and-coming talent, and wrote songs for others that while recognizably “Prince,” could be interpreted in innumerable ways. “He created kind of an incubator before that was even a term of business,” Moon noted.
His prolonged battle with Warner Bros., which led Prince in the 1990s to adopt the glyph symbol and make appearances with the word “slave” written on his face, set the stage for the battles for artistic control and fair compensation that define the music industry today, as artists and labels struggle to define their relationships in the face of new distribution models like iTunes and streaming services.
“Prince was doing direct-to-consumer crowdsourced album releases a couple of decades before Kickstarter came around,” Miller said. “With respect to his relationships in business and his creative output, he famously said, ‘If you don’t own your masters, your masters own you,’ which of course underpinned his argument to gain control of his catalog from Warner Bros.”
When Prince released his Musicology album in 2004, it was his first in five years to be released by a major label and his most successful in years. The album’s sales were powered in part by an innovative and controversial plan to include a copy in the ticket price of the accompanying tour.
“That’s how you sell records in 2005 — you sell 25,000 every other night and stay on the Billboard charts,” LeGere said. “I remember taking the call and confirming that Billboard was going to stop [counting] that sales data. We had a conversation in the hall and [Prince] said quite simply, ‘Why would I care if anyone knows how many records I sell?’ It demonstrated to me that that was the furthest thing he cared about…. For him, it wasn’t the awards, it wasn’t the accolades; it was to share the music.”
“He created kind of an incubator before that was even a term of business.” –Tom Moon
Prince ultimately took ownership of the copyrights for songwriting and his recordings, and in 2014 re-signed with Warner Bros. — but this time he had full control. As the music industry embraced models that Prince had pioneered, he famously declared in 2010 that “the Internet’s completely over” because online distribution services were not fairly compensating artists.
“Prince was not just an early adopter,” Miller said. “Even when he didn’t have the leverage to do so, he was an artist who followed his heart and executed on what he thought was the right thing to do for his career and his music regardless of whoever was on his creative or business team at that time — and he did it decades before anybody else.”
He policed unauthorized clips of his music on YouTube and pulled his music from Spotify and other streaming services as artists including Taylor Swift protested the royalty rates that were paid to artists. Prince’s music is currently only streaming on Tidal, the subscription service launched last year by Jay-Z.
“That’s how you sell records in 2005 — you sell 25,000 every other night and stay on the Billboard charts.” –Scott LeGere
“He was highly aware of and knew his presence as an artist and also as a cultural icon,” LeGere said. “I think there’s a business growth that comes in the life and career of any professional and especially a musician; you get in and you understand who the power players are…. Living through the era of the 1980s, 1990s and today, Prince intimately saw those changes and learned to understand them, and over time he really started to wield his power for fairer deals and transparency. We will all benefit from that.”
A prolific artist in life, by most accounts, Prince leaves behind a literal vault of unreleased recordings. That vault was “full,” the last time LeGere was at Paisley Park eight or nine years ago; an adjacent locked space that staff called “the pre-vault” had “an entire floor covered with two-inch analog tapes on their spines.”
While some of the music was experimental, LeGere distinctly remembers the staff eavesdropping as Prince worked on a track that was “so good and so funky.”
“He came out and said, ‘Take it down to the vault,’ and I wheeled it down to the vault, and no one has heard it since,” LeGere said. “Let’s hope there is as orderly a plan as possible [to make the unreleased music available] because there are very special things in there, I’m sure.”
Image: By penner – http://flickr.com/photos/penner/2450784866, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4271027