How Prince Pioneered the Future of the Music Biz

Apr 21, 2016

At the time, in the '90s, Prince seemed crazy. He'd written "SLAVE" on the side of his face and insisted the Warner Bros. contract under which he'd sold 100 million albums had turned him into a prisoner. But he turned out to be a pioneer, one of the first major pop stars ever to crack the modern record-label deal, negotiating his freedom in order to show how prolific he was. That year, he released the three-disc, 36-song Emancipation, which didn't sell like his Warner hits but allowed him to keep the profits for himself. Over the past decade, artists from the Eagles to Wilco to Beck have done exactly that.

More than just about any other musician, Prince predicted the Internet, setting up a 1-800-NEW-FUNK hotline to sell albums and merchandise, correctly calculating he could make far more millions off his concert tours than the album sales he shared with Warner Bros. "You see what's going on in the industry," Londell McMillan, his attorney at the time, told Forbes, "and you have to ask yourself, is this artist the kind of mercurial crazy some people say, or is he the wise one who understands where he fits at the start of a new century?" In 1997, releasing Crystal Ball, he was one of the first artists to accept Internet pre-orders. Later he sold several albums through his NPG Music Club online.

Prince performs at the Bottom Line on Feb. 15, 1980 in New York City.
Prince performs at the Bottom Line on Feb. 15, 1980 in New York City.Waring Abbott—Getty Images
Prince performs at the Bottom Line on Feb. 15, 1980 in New York City.
Prince performs on Saturday Night Live on Feb. 21, 1981.
Prince performs onstage at the Palladium on Dec. 2, 1981 in New York City.
Prince in 1982.
Prince attends the premiere of Purple Rain on July 26, 1984 in Hollywood, Calif.
Promotional still for Purple Rain.
Prince in Under the Cherry Moon, 1986.
Prince and the Revolution perform on Aug. 17, 1986 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Prince performs at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 5, 1991 in Los Angeles.
Prince Charles, right, talks with Prince, left, at the "Diamonds are Forever" celebration on June 9, 1999 in London.
Beyoncé, right, and Prince perform at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 8, 2004 in Los Angeles.
From left: Tom Petty, Dhani Harrison and Prince perform during The 19th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in New York City on March 15, 2004. Prince was inducted into the Hall of Fame that evening.
PRINCE DIPrince arrives with his former wife Manuela Testolini for the 77th Academy Awards on Feb. 27, 2005 in Los Angeles.
Prince performs during the American Idol Season 5 Finale on May 24, 2006 in Hollywood, Calif.
Prince performs during half-time at Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007 in Miami, Fla.
Prince performs during half-time at Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007 in Miami, Fla.
Sheila E and Prince perform on June 1, 2007 in Pasadena, Calif.
Prince with comedian Dave Chappelle at the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 18, 2007 in Las Vegas.
Prince during the 2015 American Music Awards on Nov. 22, 2015 in Los Angeles.
Prince performs at the Bottom Line on Feb. 15, 1980 in New York City.
Waring Abbott—Getty Images
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For a long time, it seemed like everything Prince Inc. did was as beautiful and perfect as "Raspberry Beret." He gave away copies of Musicology with tickets to his 2004 tour, then grossed $88 million in concert sales, more than Celine Dion or Madonna. He signed one-album distribution deals with major labels rather than giving them the long-term rights to his music, and wound up with a No. 1 hit in 2006, 3121. He gave away 2 million copies of Planet Earth with newspapers in a 2007 U.K. promotion.

Then he abruptly realized that the rampant online piracy he'd largely danced around would affect his bottom line, too. He sued The Pirate Bay, an illegal Swedish file-sharing service, for violating his copyrights, and in 2010 called the Internet "completely over." Suddenly, it was impossible to find even a glimmer of a Prince song, recorded or live, via YouTube, in part because he'd cracked down on smartphone cameras in concert. Last year, after the launch of Apple Music, Prince pulled his entire catalog from all the major streaming services. And not just his music: You can't find the Cyndi Lauper or Mitch Ryder versions of "When You Were Mine."

By way of explanation, Prince offered a familiar refrain: Blame the record industry. Labels took advantage of artists by signing lucrative content deals with streaming services, then didn't share profit. "You just have to blow it up," he said. "That's what it’s going to take."

It seemed extreme, but he was Prince. Which means he was probably right.

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