Commemorating Prince: A Fiercely Original Artist and Entrepreneur

Daniel Banas  |

This is a rough one. Prince Rogers Nelson, who went by the stage name Prince (or The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, or ) has passed away today at the young age of 57 after suffering from flu for a number of weeks.

An artist through and through, Prince was an American singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, occasional actor, and self-styled icon. Though he was a pioneer and huge name in rock, R&B, funk and pop music, Prince was also a truly independent singular individual who found incredible success by following his instincts, constantly reinventing himself and forwarding his career... his own way.

You’ll no doubt see many commemorations of Prince, his music and his artistic legacy today, so let’s take a moment to celebrate the Prince the idiosyncratic entrepreneur with a savvy business sense. Though Prince’s 100 million records sold worldwide is an astonishing feat in its own right, a deeper look at Prince’s history in the recording industry offers a clear portrait of an artist who also happened to be an aggressive and intelligent businessman.

Prince’s Massive Minnesota-based Recording Complex

Many pop superstars get their start from humble Midwestern beginnings… but once they make their multiple millions, they’ll usually hightail it to Los Angeles, Manhattan or the south of France. Not Prince, though. He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and that’s where he stayed, having built his recording mega-studio Paisley Park, named for his own 1985 single, in the humble suburb of Chanhassen.

Paisley Park is unassuming from the outside - it looks like any other corporate park-based office building. Yet, on the inside, it’s not filled with dull fluorescent lights and cubicles, but with purple-drenched live music venues and a so-called “Galaxy Room” intended for meditation.

While we don’t know for sure why Prince chose to build his recording megaplex near his Midwestern hometown instead of, say, in downtown L.A., it seems safe to say Prince probably saved millions on real estate costs, while maintaining the independence that he so clearly held dear.

Prince Wouldn’t Stand for a Bad Contract

Back in the 1990s, Prince got involved in a very public battle with his label Warner Bros. Records after he felt they were extending his contract and overstepping their bounds by insisting he release albums later apart than he preferred. The dispute led Prince to change his name to a symbol and write the word “slave” on his face, because Prince clearly understands tough negotiation tactics.

For those who might question whether it’s a bit provocative or even offensive for Prince to use such a racially charged word like “slave” to describe recording contracts, that’s exactly the parallel Prince hoped to make. The Artist believed that the record industry exerted particular control over black artists.

Eventually, Prince would advise new artists not to sign a contract at all. “You don’t need a record company to turn you into anything. It wasn’t like they were directing our flow whatsoever, you know. I had autonomous control from the very beginning to make my album,” said Prince in a 2015 interview with The Guardian.

Prince the Copyright Trailblazer

Any entrepreneur worth their salt knows having a brilliant idea is only the first of many steps toward any successful creative venture, and The Artist certainly understood that Prince the artist is nothing without Prince the CEO of his own career.

It was that insistence on controlling his own brand and catalog that led Prince to make moves toward scrubbing all use of photographs, images, lyrics, album covers and anything else linked to Prince’s likeness from the Internet in 2007 under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

In September of 2007, Prince announced he would sue YouTube (GOOG) and eBay (EBAY) because they “are clearly able [to] filter porn and pedophilia material appear but to choose not to filter out the unauthorized music and film content which is core to their business success.” Which seems like a fair point.

Prince’s aggressive litigiousness even led to disagreement among fellow rock icons over how far an artist should go to protect copyright. After the 2008 Coachella Music Festival, a footage taken by a concertgoer of Prince performing a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” began making the rounds until The Artist forced YouTube and other sites to remove the video. However, when Radiohead insisted to YouTube “it’s our song, let people hear it,” the site reinstated the video.

It was a loss for Prince, but a big win for fans of his music, because, as you can see below, Prince performed a blistering cover:

It’s also worth noting that Prince’s aggressive bid for control of his work online could be seen as an early template for the successful curbing of unofficial uploads by artists like Taylor Swift, Kanye West and Jay-Z, whose Tidal service Prince had signed onto. Just like in music, today’s artists are taking cues from Prince in copyright.

For his wildly inventive music and artistry, as well as his insightful and forward-thinking business acumen, Prince will surely be missed.



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