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Pop Life: how Prince played the music industry

Jens Dige/EPA

Pop Life: how Prince played the music industry

When Tipper Gore heard the reference to masturbation in the lyrics to Prince’s Darling Nikki on the album Purple Rain she had just bought for her 11-year-old daughter, it sparked a chain of events that sent shockwaves through the record industry, ultimately culminating in senate hearings and Parental Advisory stickers on records. As was so often the case with Prince, the controversy stemmed from his unique position in the realm of popular music.

Prince was a prodigiously gifted multi-instrumentalist and guitar virtuoso, a commercial pop artist, a showman and a bandleader drawing on traditions dating back to the pre-pop big-band outfits via James Brown’s soul revues. He was at once easy to place – an almost archetypal pop star – and impossible to label definitively. His chart prominence in the 1980s doubtless contributed to Gore’s mistaken assumptions about the content of his work, but his star persona also revealed fault-lines in commercial music making – which he didn’t hesitate to prise open. These are as much part of his legacy as his ceaselessly eclectic output.

Amongst the vanguard of black American artists of his generation to break into the white market, he was the first – only really – since Hendrix to do so on a grand scale as an overtly “rock” act even as he maintained his links to the genres on the other side of the segregation lines. Prince didn’t so much “cross over” as straddle the divide. Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones brought in Eddie Van Halen to provide the guitar pyrotechnics on Beat It. Prince had them on tap.

Flowers are left outside Paisley Park, the Minnesotan home and studio of Prince. William Anstett/EPA

Prince and the Revolution

At 37 studio albums under his own name, his body of work is immense, even leaving aside the vast seam of unreleased material, and spans the gamut of modern popular music genres whilst somehow avoiding pastiche. Prince occupies a strange place in the field of popular music – a jack-of-all-trades yet still in a class of his own. The pop, funk, psychedelia, hard-rock and soft soul were all held together by force of personality, even as his public face was also clearly a creation.

This may seem contradictory for someone whose offstage demeanour was reticent, but contradiction – even something of an obdurate streak – was also Prince’s stock in trade. He was an arch manipulator of the pop machinery, and didn’t make things easy for fans or the media. From “purple” through “paisley” to a distinctive lexicon – glyphs of eyes to represent the letter “I” in titles, “U” for the word “you” – he inhabited his own aesthetic world. But even as a branding exercise, this was one that almost wilfully gritted the gears of smooth production. From awkward typography outwards, his career often ran at oblique angles to standard practice.

This was most famously exemplified by his decision in 1993 to change his name to an unpronounceable merger of the traditional symbols for male and female, but it was a tendency that ran deep. In 1987 he scrapped his follow-up to the successful Sign “O” The Times immediately prior to release. It had been slated to hit the market with an entirely black cover and no title. The replacement Lovesexy, poppier and more musically accessible, arrived as a CD with only one track (and nine songs) to forestall the much-touted programming and skipping facility of the format. The cover was a photograph of himself naked. Some shops baulked at stocking it without covering it up.

In 2007 he gave away copies of his Planet Earth album in the UK as a covermount CD on The Mail on Sunday, in direction contradiction to the wishes of his record company, which consequently withdrew its British release. This free UK album was accompanied by an unheard of 21-night run at the O2 Arena as the industry at large was coming to terms with the fact that live revenues had overtaken recordings. Sometimes lacking the support of major industry channels and, at times, in obstinate opposition to them, he nevertheless carved out a profitable route to his fans.

Sign ‘O’ The Times. hansthijs/flickr, CC BY

Sign ‘O’ The Times

For all his eccentricities, there was an internal consistency to his working practices. Author and journalist Nelson George noted that where Michael Jackson’s business practices were geared towards promoting his larger than life persona, “Prince … used his energy to build and direct a multi-media empire”. His early contract with Warner gave him creative control – almost unheard of for a new artist – and he leveraged his commercial success into the construction of his own Paisley Park studio complex. Even his name-change – and public appearances with the word “slave” written on his face – were tied to his subsequent acrimonious parting with the label over ownership of the master recordings of his releases.

Experimental in business as well as music, he pioneered direct distribution to his fans over the internet in 1997, before also being one of the first artists to turn against it after taking down his website in 2006 and, by turns, pulling his music from Spotify before releasing a song exclusively to the platform only weeks later in July 2015 and an album exclusive to streaming service Tidal in December. As paradoxical as this appeared, Prince’s career can be read as a series of interventions to maintain control of his artistic and financial destiny across the value chain – from production, through publishing and distribution to live performance.

Never one to compromise, musically or otherwise, his twists and turns over the internet, along with his back and forth relationships with record labels, were all evidence of an ongoing attempt to simultaneously capitalise on the latest developments and kick against what he perceived as the structural inequities of the system to prioritise the relationship between the musician and the audience.

Unpredictable and shocking to the last, Prince will be best remembered – and certainly most loved – for his music. But his imprint on modern music making went beyond that. A bellwether for popular music and its underlying practices, he was indeed a “Sign O the Times”.

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