Prince died yesterday of unknown causes, about six weeks shy of his 58th birthday. As a means of coping, the world is sharing en masse its favorite Prince moments. This on its face isn’t surprising; it’s what we do whenever we lose someone who has changed our lives. It’s the moments themselves—the rare seconds of weird splendor—that are cause for celebration.
Every Prince fan has a favorite Prince story, a moment when Prince Rogers Nelson (though you can just refer to him as Prince; everyone will know who you’re talking about) performed some task—be it his random television cameos, his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show, or the entirety of Purple Rain—that seemingly no other being in our stratosphere could be imagined carrying out. The ensuing conversations usually arrive at the same conclusion: Prince never met us regular folks’ boring expectations. That was less because Prince had a point to prove than because his entire being was genuinely, fantastically alien.
My favorite Prince story sums up his ability to wrestle artistic control from anyone who tried to claim him. But first, it’s a story of breakfast. In 2004, comedian Dave Chappelle famously produced a skit, based on trueevents, of Prince winning a basketball game and then treating all the players to homemade pancakes. The skit mocks Prince’s distinct falsetto, hypersexuality, and supposedly “feminine” mannerisms. But, nine years after the skit aired, Prince got his merryrevenge: The cover art for his single “Breakfast Can Wait” featured an image of Chappelle in his Prince costume. The single was released through Prince’s website, 3rdeyetunes.com—marking just the latest blip in Prince’s long history of working outside the traditional record label scheme. The message of “Breakfast Can Wait” was clear: Nobody uses Prince with greater authority than the man himself.
Prince never met us regular folks’ boring expectations. That was less because Prince had a point to prove than because his entire being was genuinely, fantastically alien.
That was how Prince treated all of his work, and it’s an assertiveness other artists are currently fighting — against tall odds — to match. Artistic control remains one of the most open-ended, headline-grabbing issues in the music industry. In February, a New York judge denied a court order that would have temporarily released pop star Kesha from her contract with Sony Records. Kesha claims the label forced her to work with producer Dr. Luke, whom she alleges sexually abused her. The case speaks to the draconian nature of music contracts, which often lock artists in for ambiguous time periods decided by the record companies. Announcing her decision to appeal last month, Kesha’s legal team compared her position under Sony to slavery.
Prince made that same comparison in 1994, when he launched a rebellion against Warner Bros. Records that produced a quick run of unevenly reviewed albums and then a break with Warner. The rift was spawned by a communication breakdown over his material: Prince felt he had too little authority over his releases, and he wanted to put out more music more often; Warner didn’t agree. Prince started appearing publicly with “SLAVE” scrawled across his face and re-cast himself as a symbol—“The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”—to circumvent Warner’s ownership of his “Prince” name and work.
Like most things Prince did, it was a battle both principled and strange. And it was a far cry from the days of performing his 1991 hit “Diamonds and Pearls” on the roof of the Warner Bros. building (described in an excellent oral history from the Star-Tribune, a paper based in Minneapolis, Prince’s hometown).
Though Prince could not break his Warner Bros. contract, he pushed back by signing a deal with their rival company Capitol Records in 1996. That the best way to fight one record company was to bring money to another speaks to the industry’s iron grip on artists at the time. “The record companies were really calling the tune,” says Fred Schruers, a music journalist who contributed to Rolling Stone throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. “And I don’t think the media was that quick to say, ‘It is horrible what happens to artists, and this guy [Prince] is exemplifying how they could fight back.’ He was exemplifying that, but Prince, as well-loved as he was by music writers, didn’t get enough credit for how radical his stance was.” (Schruers fortuitously met Prince twice — first in New York in 1978, not long after the release of his debut studio album, For You, when a Warner Bros. publicist mistakenly introduced the shirtless artist as “The Prince”; and a second time in 2010, at a screening of Black Swan in Los Angeles.)
Following the 1996 Capitol release of the (pointedly named) Emancipation, Prince put out albums through his own New Power Generation Records in Minneapolis. But when it came to record distributors, he was nearly as promiscuous as the persona he built in his bluntly erotic, irresistible lyrics. He circulated records through Arista (1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic), Best Buy-owned Redline Entertainment (2001’s The Rainbow Children), MP Media (2003’s N.E.W.S.), Universal (2006’s 3121), and Columbia (2004’s Musicology and 2007’s Planet Earth). Then came two releases he only distributed independently, before his big reunion in 2014 with Warner Bros. After two decades of tension, Prince scored an unprecedented victory, gaining full ownership of his album catalog. He promptly started releasing with Warner again.
“Prince really set a precedent,” says Olufunmilayo Arewa, a professor at the University of California-Irvine School of Law who focuses on intellectual property, copyright law, and music. He took momentum from a decades-old law: the Copyright Act of 1976, which allows artists to terminate a label’s previous ownership of their albums 35 years after each release. Prince was approaching the 35-year anniversary of his debut during the talks with Warner, which gave him leverage, Arewa explains. Few artists can boast such an adoring global fanbase like Prince did, a fact that certainly worked to his advantage in negotiations. It makes sense that record copyrights have the most impact on artists with a big enough fanbase to keep selling over time; those musicians are the ones who have the most to gain—and lose—in such negotiations. For these musicians, like Paul McCartney, Prince led the way in gaining rights to an artist’s work.
Prince’s legacy gets murkier in his phobia of digital distribution—most glaringly, his decision to block his music from nearly every online streaming service. (This led to Universal Records’ bizarre lawsuit last year against a mother for a video of her toddler dancing to “Let’s Go Crazy,” which Universal lost.) “That side of his desire to control his art is not a good model. It made sense that he did it, because Prince is Prince, but it’s not a model for everyone else to follow moving forward,” Arewa says. “Consumers want streaming, and that’s where the future of the industry is going.”
The only streaming service Prince shared music with was Jay-Z’s artist-run, initially maligned Tidal. He vocalized strong support for Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s efforts to maintain creative control — the same goal he had set for himself. Artist-entrepreneurs owe Prince a business debt — even when it comes to something as specific as the buzz over this weekend’s release of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” project for HBO. “I don’t think she could take over HBO and get this kind of support and promotion from them as a self-generating artist, unless Prince had set that example years before,” Schruers says.
Breakfast can wait (especially if, as Prince urged, it’s delayed for sex); Prince’s commitment to his artistic vision, blessedly for us mere mortals, could not.