Prince: A Royal Example of Artistic Integrity

I was in elementary school when I fell in love with Prince. I heard my mom and aunt talk about him as they were children of the 80s – his music, his style, the girl groups he created like Vanity 6 that they would cosplay as – doing dance routines in their big sister’s fancy lingerie much to the chagrin of my uncles. I gleaned most of my taste and style from them so of course, I had to have a bit of Prince for myself.

I wanted to ensure my newly minted fandom was steeped in the real deal of who this ethereal being was so I pored over Purple Rain and shortly after discovered Controversy, 1999, For You and his self-titled 1979 offering. Eventually, my listening journey led me around to his more recent stuff and Musicology became my middle school soundtrack. I’ve listened to everything of his I could get my hands on since.

While much is said about his sex appeal and musicianship (Have you heard his rendition of, While My Guitar Gently Weeps?!) not nearly enough is said about Prince as a businessman who helped pave the way for artists to own their shit and be in control of their destinies.

In 1993, Prince famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and scrawled SLAVE across his face following a heated legal battle with his label Warner Bros. While his choices led to lots of late-night talk show chatter and overall criticism, Prince opened a portal for others – if they felt bold enough – to enter.

In his first fully independent release, Crystal Ball, he launched a direct-to-consumer ordering service which raked in a reported $10 million in revenue. This paved the way for artists like Radiohead, LaRussell and many others to do the same. Prince would continue experimenting with all sorts of distribution models – a New Power Generation subscription service, giving albums away for free in certain markets and collaborating with companies like EMI and Universal to distribute his works. He also released his thirty-eighth studio album, HitNRun, exclusively to Tidal initially.

In 2004, Prince also became the first artist to bundle album and concert sales – a tactic that has since been copied by artists like Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé.

Later in his career, Prince and Warner Bros. made up but not without The Artist getting ownership of his masters.

Prince’s example should be the gold standard, especially for Black artists. It is inarguable that there is no pop music without the influence of Black people. It is reasonable then to expect that Black artists would benefit (generously) from the success of their output but we know that is not the case.

Take Little Richard for instance, a Prince progenitor. The man who gave Mick Jagger his swagger and taught The Beatles how to twist and shout, never won a Grammy in competition (though he was recognized in 1993 with a lifetime achievement recognition and nominated posthumously in 2023). When presenting the Best New Artist trophy at the Grammys in 1988, he snatched his moment. While some people nervously laughed
and others got on their feet to offer applause, Little Richard declared himself the best.

“I have never received nothing. Y’all ain’t never gave me no Grammy and I been singing for years. I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll and they never gave me nothing. And I am the originator!”

Little Richard, like other architects of rock ‘n’ roll, dared to be explosive and imaginative and it’s a damn shame they were never properly honored.

For every Little Richard, we have to take what’s ours and be unapologetic in doing so.

This is why Prince advocated time and time again for artists to lean away from the industry and find their own paths.

If I could posit anything here as a solution, it would be for artists to discover and stay connected to the core of who they are and try their damndest not to deviate from it – no matter what is trendy, profitable or expected… to be true masters of their fate.

“But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I?” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1996 “When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave. That’s where I was… If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”