Millions of fans will remember Prince as a master of funk, a sex symbol and the creator of indelible hits like “1999” and “When Doves Cry.”
But within the music business, Prince — who died on Thursday at 57 — was also a trailblazing and sometimes controversial champion for his rights as an artist. In the 1990s he was in open conflict with the music industry, protesting the major-label system by writing the word “slave” on his cheek and changing his name to an unpronounceable glyph.
Later, as the music world moved online, Prince made sometimes mystifying pronouncements about the Internet, and policed his music rights so carefully that most of his songs were unavailable not only on jukebox streaming services like Spotify but also on Pandora and YouTube.
His moves were sometimes mocked as mere eccentricity. But he is now seen as an early advocate of the kind of experimentation and artistic control that has become an essential tool of the most forward-thinking pop stars.
“If you want to see his influence, all you have to do is look at what’s happening today, where you have Kanye West releasing an album on different platforms and adding to it as he goes along, or Drake saying, ‘You know what, I’ve got a new record and I’m just going to drop it,’” said Jimmy Jam, the producer who was a longtime associate of Prince, and a former chairman of the Recording Academy, the organization that presents the Grammy Awards.
“Those types of things, what the music business turned into,” Jimmy Jam added, “a lot of that is directly related to the artistic freedoms that Prince was looking for.”
For Prince, the key was always control. His battles in the early 1990s with Warner Bros., the record company that had signed him at the beginning of his career, were primarily over the label’s demands that he release no more than one album a year, a pace that matched the industry’s marketing patterns.
The restrictions rankled Prince, who publicly rebelled and eventually started his own label, NPG Records. In 1996 he released a triple album, “Emancipation,” through a deal with EMI that allowed him to put out albums when he wished.
“The music, for me, doesn’t come on a schedule,” Prince told The New York Times in 1996. “The main idea is not supposed to be, ‘How many different ways can we sell it?’ That’s so far away from the true spirit of what music is.”
Prince’s last Top 10 hit was “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” which went to No. 3 in 1994. And critics complained that he released too much music of too little quality. But he continued to break ground.
In 2004, he gave away copies of his CD “Musicology” with tickets to his concerts, a strategy that helped him move 632,000 copies of the album in five weeks but also led Billboard to change its chart rules. In 2007, copies of his album “Planet Earth” were given away in the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday; that year, he also gave an electrifying performance at the Super Bowl halftime show.
Around the same time, Prince, who had experimented with the online world in the 1990s, was emerging as an apparent enemy of the Internet. In 2010, he told The Mirror, a British newspaper, that “the Internet’s completely over,” for which he was ridiculed online. He later clarified that his comment was about money that artists can earn online. “What I meant was that the Internet was over for anyone who wants to get paid, and I was right about that,” he told The Guardian last year.
In recent years, he took full control of his music rights. That included ownership of his music publishing — the copyrights for songwriting — and his recordings, which led to a new deal with Warner Bros. in 2014. (He told The Associated Press that there were no hard feelings: “I don’t deal in history nor should they.”) That control let him withdraw his music from most streaming services, although he left his catalog on Tidal, the subscription service bought last year by Jay Z. And like Drake and Mr. West, he made use of platforms like SoundCloud to post new tracks and remove them as he saw fit.
For fans, one of the biggest questions is what will happen to his fabled “vault” of unreleased recordings. According to Jimmy Jam, that material was already building by the time of the early 1980s albums “Controversy” and “1999.”
“If you ever gave him an answer that had anything to do with ‘because that’s the way we have always done it,’ that was absolutely the wrong answer to give to Prince,” Jimmy Jam said. “It was, ‘Why can’t we do it a different way? Why can’t we do it better?’”
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