Three years ago April 21st, 2016 at 10:07 am the world was struck with a mighty blow to the heart as it learned that the beloved musical icon Prince had passed away. Known as the greatest rock star to ever live the musical genius’s influence on every artist after him can’t be denied, but what Prince rarely, if never, gets credit for was how his independent moves in the music industry stimulated the minds of the next generation, which would happen to be rap music.
There’s an amazing documentary called Slave Trade: How Prince Re-Made the Music Business, shows a side of Prince that most people haven’t seen. The film portrays him as a daring character who rebelled against an oppressive system by pushing boundaries at every opportunity he got. With hip hop being so young with a rebellious spirit that had characters who grew up learning how to make nothing into something, who could relate to that description of a protagonist better than a rapper?
Around the time in the early 90’s, Michael Jackson and Madonna were the two highest paid artist. Prince believed because of how independent he was when it came to making music that he was the biggest and most important artist, there for he should be paid the most. In 1992, after releasing the Diamond and Pearls album the year before, Prince signed a deal with Warner Bros Music for $100 million, providing if he is able to make sure his next six albums each sold $5 million. Prince, like many rappers, would soon find out that most deals that looked appealing were written in a poisonous ink.
The problem between Prince and Warner Bros Music was that his work ethic was so efficient that he was quickly producing so many records faster than Warner’s promotion and marketing team could digest. In an era where the time span between an album’s release could be between 2 to 4 years, Prince could’ve dropped 2 albums a year if he wanted to. This is the same guy who dropped an album every year from 1978 to 1999. Warner also believed that Prince didn’t put out albums that weren’t competitive or marketable to their standards. Prince’s belief was that his albums were what they were and it was the label’s job to market and promote it. Not all but many record labels would rather artists compromise their art just to make their job easier. When the legendary hip hop band, The Roots, signed to Def Jam in 2006, Questlove said rap mogul Jay Z, who at the time was the president of Def Jam didn’t want to risk changing what made The Roots The Roots just to promote a record.
““He said, ‘Nah man, if y’all do a record, I want y’all to do a real Roots record. Don’t like figure out what Jay-Z wants because then I’ma look like the bad guy that killed y’all.’ I never had a label president beg me for an art record before. Like, ‘Please, no radio singles. I don’t want no radio.’ So that’s what we did with Game Theory.” – Questlove
Prince was actually the first to take on the issue of the unfair treatment artist receive from the record label. At a time where it was rare for an artist to think about ownership, Prince never accepted the fact that he didn’t own his music. Throughout his career he always looked for ways to grow outside of the major label model. Prince’s beef wasn’t with Warner specifically, but with the music business itself.
In 1993 Warner refused to release the first album by his band New Power Generation, Gold Nigga. They believed that Prince needed to learn the hard way that he needed them more than they needed him. Prince however decided to take matters into his own hands and distribute the album himself with telephone orders and merchandise at his shows. The following year he invested $2 million into financing and promoting the single “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for his 17th album The Gold Experience through a worldwide campaign, which would later bring him his first number one single in the UK charts. He released the single independently via his own record imprint, NPG, and distributed by small indie label Bellmark Records, proving that he could make hits and promote them on his own.
Prince had an epiphany before the release of The Gold Experience, that the record labels believed they owned the ideas in his head, hence the word slave written on his face. While his core fans stayed supportive through the ups and downs of his battle against the music industry, there were many who were turned off by Prince’s antics, which overshadowed the albums promotion making it difficult to meet the $100 million dollar deal expectations. Similar to how many people have viewed Kanye West whenever he’s ranting, Prince was willing to look strange to the public if it meant fighting for what he believed, even if it meant changing his name, walking around with slave written on his face or wearing buttless chaps as a way of telling the record label to kiss his ass. He was the slave that escaped Plato’s cave but had difficulty in getting the others to break free from the Matrix.
Prince was definitely 3,000 years ahead of his time when it came to music and the business. In 1995 he believed that once the internet became reality the music business would be finished because it would allow artist to cut out the middle man, the record label, and go straight to the consumers, the fans. He also started to realized that being independent meant that he didn’t have to sell millions in order to make a profit. Like many independent thinkers in the rap community such as Jay Z, Tech Nine, E40, Master P, Rap-a-Lot, TDE, Chance The Rapper and the late Nipsey Hussle, Prince saw that selling $50,000 as an independent artist was way better than going gold under a major label because all of the profit went to him rather than having to give up a bigger slice of the pie even if you did a majority of the work. In 1997 his independent Jam tour made an estimate $30 million.
“It’s interesting becasue the artist don’t get paid anyway. There’s maybe 10 or 12 of them that have sent decent deals and the rest, you know.” – Prince
The music industry hated the arrival of Napster, a digital service that provided a way for people to listen to music without having to buy it by downloading it. While many many people thought Napster was stealing money from the artist, Prince embraced it because at the time most artist weren’t getting paid properly by the labels they were signed to and that it created a way for artist to break free from the constrictions that came with a record deal. In 1998 Prince became the first artist to sell music online with his 20th album the Crystal Ball, a three disc set and his 21st album The Truth. The two came together as a box set that was sold on his website Love4oneanother.com and his phone line 1800NEWFUNK. Three years later he would go onto create NPG Music Club, a new subscription based site were his fans would sign up for $25 and in return get priority seating at concerts, exclusive merchandise and new cd’s sent to them whenever Prince released new music.
“I swear I read some article about Juelz Santana and that he was getting $15,000 a show. I’m like “What? A nigga getting 15,000 a show? I’m about to do that, fuck that!” That was my goal, I was thinking I’m going to get 15,000 and I’m going to go indie and sell 50,000 units, if I get 8 dollars a cd i’m going to be in the ball park of a half a million, that’s cool mathematics. I ain’t think about getting signed and going platinum I was thinking about I can do 50,000 indie and get $15,000 a show. Yeah that’s crackin’.” – Nipsey Hussle
The late hip hop entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle, who also saw the importance of ownership, followed a similar tactic in 2013 when he released his mixtape Crenshaw. At a pop up shop in LA the Crenshaw native created 1,000 hard copies of the project for $100 each, which also included a ticket to his hometown concert. All the hard copies were sold and even a 100 of them were bought Jay Z. Like the independent thinking minds of the two late artists, the Brooklyn hip hop mogul did the same thing when creating his own music streaming service Tidal. Not only is Tidal second highest of their competition when it comes to paying artist per streams according to reports from Digital Music News, but it also makes sure that it subscribers who are fans of Hov and certain artists like Beyonce and Kanye West that they either get exclusive albums from them or at least allow them to get it first before it goes to other music streaming services.
“Niggas getting jerked, that shit hurts, I take it personally/Niggas rather work for the man than to work with me” – Jay Z
That’s not to say Prince stopped doing business with record labels, he didn’t hate them he just hated how it was constructed and how the business ran. In 1999 he signed a one cd deal with Arista Records, which he called an artist record deal agreement. Unlike a regular deal Prince wouldn’t be held by any restrictions, allowing him to make the type of music he wanted and work with whomever he wanted. He received an $11 million advance as well as the ownership of his masters. Prince was responsible for putting money into recording and Arista would put money into distributing and promoting the record he gave them. During an interview with Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club rap legend Styles P shared the same thoughts Prince had when it came to being on a label or being independent. Styles P who is known for going the indie route when it comes to his music career said he wouldn’t mind doing business with record labels as partners, but not as their signed artists.
“I would love to do business with all these labels…It’s about breaking the bread. It’s about business and meeting at the table like gentlemen like “Aight, we don’t gotta be no slaves or partners for too long. Let’s just work this out for now for what it is.””- Styles P
The biggest issue that record labels had with Prince was that they feared he would influence the next generation of artists with his way of thinking and they were right to worry. Prince’s legacy not only left an impact on music, but the business as well. He showed his peers and artists after him that it was possible to be successful as independent artist and though he never got the credit, he was the first to see that the internet would be a game changer that would flip the script on the music business and put artists in a better position to be paid fairly. Whether they know it or not rappers who have found success in the music industry by staying independent or collaborating with record labels as partners instead of being signed honor Prince’s legacy and everything he fought for. And has the world prepares to celebrate Prince’s 61st birthday next month, it’s amazing to see how his blueprint helped the next generation to break free from of the Matrix.