Prince’s relationship with money was convoluted, to say the least. His secret and private nature didn’t help to understand the reasons behind some controversial decisions he made during his lifetime. In this article, these topics will be analyzed in the light of revelations made since April 21st, 2016.
Prince’s parents were divorced when he was 10 years old. After the divorce he lived with his mother for a couple of years, before moving in with his father, then shortly after that, moving to live with his aunt Olivia. Eventually, he ended up living with the family of André Anderson (later known as André Cymone), where he spent a few years before becoming independent. From the available information, it does not seem that Prince was in a situation of pressing economic necessity, despite this complicated personal history. Those were undoubtedly tough years for him, though. He briefly addressed this period in this quote from the interview he gave to Ebony:
I grew up poor, so I’m used to something: if it’s mine, I’m used to it being mine. If somebody takes it from me, it’s taken. It’s taken a lot to get used to that.– Ebony interview Dec 22, 2015
The upheaval of this period likely created a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity, including also the pecuniary aspects of his life. Only Prince knew how deeply the situation affected him, but it seems logical to expect that many aspects of his personality (the self-confidence, the bravery, the defiance) were in one way or another a reflection of this conflicting period in his youth. One of them probably was a clear decision to become economically independent, in pursuit of stability after his difficult teenage years.
Getting a contract
When Prince signed a contract with Owen Husney in 1976, he received an allowance of $50 per week. While this was probably the first time he felt some kind of economic security, he was at the time certainly aware of his own potential and likely believed he deserved more. After a few months, once the battle among record companies to get a record deal with him was finished, Prince got a hefty $80,000 advance payment from Warner Bros. Records, with an additional $250,000 if they renewed him after the first period (three albums in two years) and another $250,000 if they renewed for a second period (two albums in one year). These numbers might seem relatively small today, but in the late 70s, they were considered among the biggest record contracts for a new artist. Furthermore, Warners allowed him to spend $60,000 in each of his first three albums. I guess the terms of this contract led to an important shift in Prince’s mind: his talent was considered worthy of vast amounts of money from the record industry. He was no longer the small, bullied kid at the school: he was a respected young artist whose work Warners was ready to pay big bucks for. The seeds for his potential superstardom had just been planted in his mind.
The glory… and the hangover
The real sign of Prince’s power started to emerge with Dirty Mind, but the true beginning of superstardom came with 1999 and its large live tour in the USA (grossing $10 million). At the time, money began to flood Prince’s bank accounts and it meant a substantial change in his economic fortunes. He was in a firm position of power, enabled to consider undertaking huge projects and to push the envelope to unprecedented levels in his career: a major film backed by major companies, which worked as a long video clip to promote the album that would become his absolute peak, Purple Rain. Beyond establishing Prince as one of the main music superstars in the late twentieth century, the movie Purple Rain made almost $70 million, while the album sold over 16 million copies, and the live tour grossed in the region of $30 million. What percentage of that money made its way to Prince we don’t know, but certainly, it was a significant amount, allowing him to reach a level of independence that would enable him to make pretty much anything he wanted.
This included losing money on Under The Cherry Moon (the movie cost $12 million but grossed only $10 million), investing $10 million to build the Paisley Park complex, investing $2.5 million in the Sign O’ The Times movie, and making a truly spectacular stage for the Lovesexy tour ($2 million). While both Sign O’ The Times and Lovesexy were acclaimed by critics and fans, and despite the fact that the Lovesexy tour was considered by many the most impressive of his career (and third in number of shows, after Purple Rain and 1999), the complex and expensive production of the Lovesexy tour resulted in the loss of money.
In a recent interview published by Star Tribune, Bob Cavallo described some stories illustrating the almost no-limits approach of Prince at the time:
He totally, totally did not care a whit about budgets, money, etc. Before we finally parted ways, he was spending, I’d say, over $100,000 a week making videos at Paisley Park that meant nothing. [For] girls he met. He’d fly cameramen in. He was unstoppable.– Bob Cavallo
Despite Cavallo’s reported attempts to suggest Prince had to be more financially prudent, Prince changed management and embarked in the making of Grafitti Bridge, in which he invested $7 million, but once again lost money (grossing in the region of $4.2 million). Around the same time, he spent almost $2 million to build his Glam Slam Nightclub in Minneapolis.
Taking into account the work and effort he put into Graffiti Bridge (the album and the movie), it’s plausible that Prince was convinced he would have a big hit again. Its subsequent failure, though, arrived after a period where his critical acclaim had not been mirrored by strong sales from his albums or from live shows.
At the beginning of the 90s, Prince made attempts to recover the commercial success he had enjoyed in the mid-80s, leading to the album Diamonds & Pearls which had good sales (although not on par with his albums from the 80s). This helped Prince to get a new contract with Warner Bros. in 1992, providing him with $10 million in advance for each new album, with the condition that he had to sell 5 million copies of each in order to receive the $10 million advance for the next one. Also at this time, Paisley Park Records became a joint venture between Prince and Warner Bros.
However, the release of 0(+> album was greeted underwhelming sales. This prompted disappointment from both Prince and Warner Bross, which led to a much-publicized feud between both. The glory days were over and Prince had to accommodate to a new economic reality. One in which money was not unlimited, as he had probably felt it was in the previous decade.
The “independent” Prince
In the first half of the 90s, Prince aired his disagreements with Warners in public (most notably with the infamous “SLAVE” written on his cheek). Given that the sales of 0(+> and later albums were lower than expected, he was not receiving the advances stipulated in the contract signed in 1992. Prince had to confront a difficult situation; one where he would be forced to reduce the untenable costs of running Paisley Park (and his expensive lifestyle) as he was no longer generating the income he had at his 80s peak. The team of professionals (managers, maintenance, etc) which had been working for him for many years were fired, and he reduced his team to a bare minimum, a big change that would have profound consequences for his career. Prince was still a highly respected musician, able to command large sums to perform live; but he had to come to terms with a hard truth: the heyday had passed, and he had to move on with a significantly reduced budget. These problematic years seemingly changed his approach to money, and he decided the issue was the “middlemen”. He began to publicly fight against the way big labels signed artists, one in which the bulk of the profits ended up going to corporations, and not musicians. Prince also started to take a much more “hands-on” approach to manage his career, not always in his best interest. Alan Leeds said this in the interview he gave to Housequake:
“I think the sparse documentation of Prince’s activities from the early 1990’s onward is a function of how his business structure changed. Until 1989, Prince’s businesses were centrally based at Paisley Park and administered by a sizeable staff of professionals (both in Los Angeles and Minneapolis) with little turnover in personnel.
There was a consistency to how his business was handled. Nearly all his activities were documented and the common knowledge of several employees. However, after his “house cleaning” in 1989, Prince went through three different management structures, sometimes including legal and financial teams, in less than five years. As the size and loyalty of his staff diminished, so did the documentation of his activities. I am not personally privy to any aborted projects in the 1990’s that are of particular interest or significance.”
Hence, although Prince parted ways with Warner Bros. in the early 90s, he had been downsizing his team since 1989. This was a rather long period that, with the benefit of hindsight, modified his way of working. Previously he was dependent on many people, which in turn allowed him to completely focus on making music. From the mid-90s onwards, Prince was much more independent (from a business standpoint), yet at the same time, he had to be much more involved in daily decision making.
Prince’s last albums released for Warner Bros. had a bitter taste (with the exception of the excellent The Gold Experience): although they contained some first-rate material (the untoppable Come album version, or Eye Like It There from Chaos And Disorder), there was clearly much filler. He was closing a chapter in his life by providing half baked collections of songs, with the goal of leaving Warner Bros. behind as soon as possible. Once free from them, he celebrated his independence with a gamble: the release of the triple-album Emancipation (which received a huge promotional push from both EMI and Prince himself, a rare event in Prince’s career) and the Jam of the Year tour. The results were positive: although Emancipation sold a rather modest figure (570,000 sets, 3 CD each in the USA), the Jam of the Year tour grossed around $30 million. The whole project coincided with some very tragic times in his personal life (as Prince and Mayte lost their newborn child right at the beginning of the Emancipation promotion), but demonstrated that Prince could have a viable independent career, as he intended.
Despite the success of the tour, Prince closed the Emancipation project unsatisfied, as he had much bigger expectations for the album sales. In the coming years he embarked on a series of independent album projects (the Crystal Ball out-take set, Chaka Khan’s Come 2 My House, Larry Graham’s GCS2000, and Newpowersoul) before teaming up with Clive Davis and Arista Records to release the infamous Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic album, arguably one of the lowest point in Prince’s career. He’d tried to get a worldwide smash by following a similar strategy to Santana (with an album full of “collaborations” with other artists), but it flopped, and as the century drew to a close, he was left considering his future. These failed projects had now made him more and more dependent on live shows (organized by a small team close to him) to ensure a reliable income.
At the beginning of the new century, Prince launched what would become his most serious attempt to interact directly with his fans online: the NPG Music Club. It lasted several years, but whether it was a profitable enterprise is unknown. Whatever the case, during those years he continued performing live with the support of various technical and promotional companies in different countries. This was the case for one of his greatest tours ever, One Nite Alone, which he performed during 2002 to much critical and public acclaim.
The 20th anniversary of Purple Rain prompted an album and massive tour in the USA, Musicology, which not only catapulted Prince to the mainstream again: it was a great economic success, helped this time by the professional management and support from one of the mammoths in the field, AEG. Why Prince decided to work with professional promoters again is not known, but the final result was a resounding success and it cemented his reputation as one of the best live performers ever in modern music. It earned $87.6 million, topping the list of top-grossing tours in 2004, above Celine Dion and Madonna.
Prince’s recovered superstardom, apart from bringing plenty of money into his pockets, emboldened him to attempt a new record aimed at the mainstream, 3121, an excellent album which for undisclosed reasons suffered from his decision to stop promoting it after a relatively short period of time, despite receiving great reviews.
The next peak in Prince’s career (and arguably the last time in which he ruled the world, in commercial terms) was the 21 Nights In London residence, another “tour” in which he paired with AEG to do something which had never been attempted before: 21 shows in a 20,000 seat auditorium, The O2 arena, together with a series of after-shows performed at the Indigo (a smaller venue, located under the tented roof of The O2). Against the predictions of many people (including yours truly, to tell the truth), this residency became another astonishing success, attracting fans from the UK and many other European countries as well. Although benefitting from affordably priced tickets (£31.21 for the O2 shows), the reported figures for these shows were still remarkable: 351,527 people attended, and the total revenue was $22 million.
Going back to Alan Leeds’ interview (conducted in April 2007):
“Some happenings during 2006/07 point out to a rather unprofessional management of Prince career, in spite of the huge success of the Super Bowl. Although I’m tempted to suggest you to contact Prince to take charge of that task again, my question is: Given the Prince’s long experience in the music business, how could you explain such lack of quality management to drive the career of one of the top musicians in the modern music?
I think Prince’s “management” situation is exactly where he wants it to be – think “Mom and Pop” store competing in the retail world of Wal-Marts and Target Stores. Prince knows what elements of the entertainment business are important to Him. He has figured out unique ways to accomplish what he needs without getting caught up in the trappings of the industry. His approach – internet-based publicity, one record deals with major labels, world tours with established tour promoters – doesn’t require paying percentages to managers and agents. He and his attorneys can negotiate his deals. This approach can continue to work for him as long as he retains his icon status and box office appeal.”
Within the industry, there is still a cachet to being in business with Prince and he deserves all the credit for that. The downsides are the aspects of his “Mom and Pop” approach that may sometimes appear less than professional compared to the slick, formulaic career strategies adhered to by major labels and agencies, and most management companies and artists. In short, Prince has cleverly carved out a niche for himself, using (even manipulating) the industry when it serves him, and ignoring it the rest of the time. And I don’t think he cares a bit how it might look compared to anything else. ”
Alan Leeds was indeed explaining the key ideas behind Prince’s strategy: no managers or agents, single albums deals sold on the fly to interested labels (which sometimes ended up feeling betrayed, as was the case when Sony signed to release Planet Earth in the UK… only to find out the album was being given away for free with tickets for the 21 Nights in London residency), and some major tours with big companies (AEG for Musicology and 21 Nights in London). Prince had learned to rely on his reputation as a superlative live musician to draw the interest of his hardcore fans and general music lovers alike in order to attend his shows. Prince continued to perform all over the world with varying levels of success: firstly with the Welcome 2 America tour, then an attempt to export the residency idea to Los Angeles in 2011 (21 Nights in Los Angeles, but this time the results were less than successful), then the Live Out Loud tour (with his new band, 3rd Eye Girl) and the Hit And Run Part II tour. Actually, he kept touring until the very end with the Piano & A Microphone tour, where Prince alone was capable of filling a large auditorium: just have a look at videos of the show he performed at the Perth Arena in Australia on February 25, 2016. A mere two months before he passed away.
Cause I’ve seen the top and it’s just a dream…
Prince had a very long run in the music business, and it was not a mediocre one: his highs and lows were both remarkable. He had been at the very top in the mid-80s, and at very low levels in the late 90s. He dealt with this topic in the lyrics of My Name Is Prince:
My name is Prince, I don’t want to be king. Cause I’ve seen the top and it’s just a dream. Big cars and women and fancy clothes. Will save your face but it won’t save your soul.
Over such an extended career, it is perhaps unsurprising to see some contradictions in this mixed relationship of Prince with money.
In various moments (noticeably, in the last fifteen years or so), there were rumours of money-related issues between Prince and some of the musicians working for him. The specific details of such issues were never disclosed, which makes sense if we consider how Prince guarded his privacy. Yet, from the outside, it was hard to understand the supposed refusal of Prince to fulfil some payments, taking into account he himself had been used to requesting large amounts of money to perform, thus ensuring a rather comfortable revenue. Maybe this was a consequence of his money issues in earlier times, and/or the troubling situation at the beginning of the 90s, where the “record-breaking contract” actually became a burden resulting in the reduction of his expenses. At some point, he appeared to become very strict regarding finances (even when he had reached a pleasant, relatively self-sufficient position: one in which a large live tour would easily secure a significant source of income). However, we must also consider the fact that these rumours never included Prince’s version of the events, and therefore we don’t know how justified (or not) these conflicts were.
On the other side, Prince carried out a significant labour of love under the form of charities, which were occasionally reported sometimes (for instance, the Love 4 One Another charity, around the time of Emancipation) but in many cases, were completely unknown until after his death. It would be hard to estimate the figures, but judging from the published information, I guess Prince gave in the region of several millions of dollars to a variety of charities.
This is something which shocked me profoundly when it was revealed. I must confess that, at that point, my perception of Prince was more influenced by the conflicts described in the paragraph above, and some specific cases had convinced me he was obsessed with money in a selfish way. So, when I started reading articles describing the charities he’d worked with under the condition of remaining anonymous, it flipped my perception upside down. I discovered Prince was a much more complex human being than I believed, and I discovered as well that the public image of Prince had little to do with the man himself.
We (even hardcore fans who had been following him and his career for decades) knew very little of the actual person, the soul behind the Prince moniker. Music-wise, he was a multitalented genius with nothing left to prove, someone entirely capable of blowing your mind after a few hours working in the studio; and certainly capable of making you enjoy the experience of your life with an inspired live show. But as a human, Prince was an extremely smart person capable, at the same time, of speaking -seriously!- about chemtrails, or believing in supernatural beings which supposedly forbid you from receiving a blood transfusion in emergency health situations. He was a strange mixture of a sophisticated, intelligent soul and a candid, sometimes simplistic guy with questionable opinions on certain important topics. Money did not escape this situation: he mixed solvent analysis of the issues faced by the music business in the last fifty years (paying special attention to issues as important -and often overlooked by young musicians- as ownership of masters, or the terms included in the contracts, for instance) with controversial strategic decisions which probably harmed his own commercial interests in the long term (such as forbidding the publication of his videos in YouTube).
For good or bad, following his journey, and specifically his complicated relationship with money was a never-ending source of fascination and enjoyment. It is only now, after several years since his untimely death, when we can begin to fully realize the astonishing impact he had in the world of music, and also in our lives.
There will truly never be another like him.
Many of the figures regarding album and ticket sales and expenses mentioned in this article were described in the book The Vault (released by Uptown) or in www.princevault.com. In other cases, I gathered the information from various internet resources.
I thank Reverend for creating the artwork illustrating this article, Reverend and Parade for their help in polishing the text, and Aaron for choosing the pictures and doing the formatting work to make this article look great in Housequake.com.