Prince and the record business
Prince may have had a troublesome relationship with labels, but he still recognised their strengths and advantages
When we talk about Prince, we can talk about many aspects of his peerless career, from his skills as a performer to his power as a pop star. When it comes to Prince the businessman, his relationship with Warner Music largely dominates this part of the discourse (aside, of course, from this contretemps). The broad brushstrokes are well known: Prince was miffed with his label, said they were treating him as a slave, changed his name to a squiggle and used a marker on his face.
But those broad brushstrokes only tell one part of the story. After all, when Prince regained ownership of his Warner Music back-catalogue in 2014, he promply did a deal with the same label and licenced classics like “Dirty Mind”, “Controversy” and “1999″ back to the label for them to work. Was this the work of someone who hated major labels?
Likewise, it’s worth noting that the post-Warner Prince may have used his NPG label to release albums, but some of these went through EMI (“Emancipation”), Arista (“Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic”), Columbia (“Musicology” and “Planet Earth”, though it was initially given away with The Mail On Sunday) and Universal (“3121″). He stopped going around the major label houses in 2014 and went back to Warners with the “Plectrumelectrum” album.
Prince was cute enough to realise that a major label had the muscle to ensure his music got into the places he wanted to be. NPG could only do so much before a campaign required a bigger machine to push things on. Furthermore, Prince was always keen to make sure he got paid for his work and knew the value of a new album or tour. He was even prepared to do deals with the media he clearly distrusted to release albums like 2010′s “20Ten” album and 2007′s “Planet Earth” album – and you can be sure he got paid for his troubles. This need to be paid also explains his 2010 rant against the internet and his endless campaign to prevent his music being available for free online.
Those broad brushstokes about Prince and the record business also don’t take account of the fact that Warner Music, like so many labels have done with artists we’ve both heard of and never heard from, took a chance on Prince when he was a newbie and invested label-wide time, patience, largesse and expertise in him. It’s something which Ben Chu notes today in The Independent. “Prince was signed as a precocious 18-year-old by Warner in 1977″, Chu writes. “He produced an album every year between 1978 and 1981. None of them were commercially successful but Warner kept on funding him as a promising prospect.”
Anyone who reads OTR on a regular basis will recognise the thrust of Chu’s argument. Records labels are often attacked and maligned for what they do which is, after all, just a simple function of capitalism. They’re upfront about the fact that they’re providing a band with the investment and seed capital to get off the ground in the first place. In return for this, they’re looking for certain rights on the music which a band produces and creates while working with the label. It’s all contained in a legal document called a contract which both sides sign after legal advice and guidance. You can’t say you’re walking into the relationship blind-folded.
And yet we keep getting artists coming out and moaning about their labels. Chu makes some interesting points about the new meme where established artists attack the major labels. Far from being a case of sticking it to the man, Chu believes this is far more self-serving and smaller acts cheering these big-hitters on is actually wrong-headed. “It’s unlikely that an artist today would get funding for four years without any major hits, as Prince did”, he notes. “They would probably be cast aside much earlier…The underlying business model is a redistributive one in a way that the top artists generally fail to acknowledge. When big acts attack the funding model of record companies what they are doing, whether they know it or not, is pulling up the ladder behind them.”
What’s also worth noting, as Prince quickly saw, is that the major labels can play a very useful role if an act has already done the heavy lifting in terms of building an audience and profile. Instead of signing your rights away in return for a stupendous pot of cash which you probably don’t need, you can license your music to the label and retain the rights. It’s an approach which leads to a more long-term and sustainable career.
Many of the major labels too are realising their own core strengths, which is why you see more and more “galactico” deals, where the labels sign acts who’ve already gone down the DIY route themselves and built their audience. Major label are great at many things – distribution, promotion, marketing – but they remain largely inefficient at building a buzz for an act in the first instance. They still sign way too many new acts and then discard them when they don’t have a hit within 12 to 18 months. On the other hand, signing proven talents is a smarter kind of business deal.
In many ways, then, Prince serves as a great tale about how labels work. When he was the kid looking for a patron to back him in the early days, Warner Music popped up to provide what he wanted and both sides got on like gangbusters. Once he was a hit, everyone was a winner, though Prince thought he should be more of a winner. Fastforward a few years and you’ve Prince on his own but realising that he need the major label ecosystem to get his music to the mainstream, except this time doing so under his own terms and conditions. Again, everyone was a winner.