“If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.” When he said that, Prince was, as always, making a larger point, and using a clever play on words. There is a long sordid history in the music industry of young, black artists being taken advantage of by leveraged, corporate record labels that spot talent, and make the rules. A look back at how Prince fought the battle on his own turf, and won.
Prince was 18 when he signed his first recording contract in 1977, with Warner. Like all recording contracts of the day (and most since) it contained an assignment clause: assignment of the master sound recordings that would come from the sessions that Warner was to be paying for, for their use, and to recoup the advance paid, and the expenses associated therewith. But even Warner knew how good he was and gave way to Prince in two deal points that were, and are, rare for a new signee.
First, he was signed to make three albums, not two. The talent displayed had already gotten him leverage in the form of a commitment for three albums, but that also meant the Prince output would be under Warner’s control for three albums, instead of the standard one or two. Second, Prince was to be listed as Producer. That meant he could exercise creative control over the works. As it turns out, Warner had underestimated exactly what, and how much, creative control meant to Prince.
Recording contracts are different from many other business agreements in that they do not have a specific term of duration, but rather production. That means recording agreements aren’t for a period of years as much as they are for a certain number of projects, however those projects are defined in the contract. What Warner didn’t know, and couldn’t have, was exactly how prolific Prince was.
When Prince wanted to execute creative control over his works, he meant to control the entirety of the universe in which they were written, recorded, mixed, engineered, designed, packaged, and released. Marketing was, by contract, not his choice or responsibility, but Warner needed him to help them market new releases, and so he was also able to exert some dominion over even the marketing campaigns that came with each new release. But he was writing music faster than Warner expected or wanted. On several occasions, Warner was in the midst of marketing a recent Prince release, and he would deliver them another. He would plead with a Warner exec he felt was on his side to allow the latest release to be heard by the public.
“I would tell him that it was counterproductive, that people can only absorb so much music from one artist at a time,” Marylou Badeaux (Warner Bros.) would say. “His answer was, ‘What am I supposed to do? The music just flows through me.’ “
At that clip, Prince would be in the market competing against himself, and the rest of His label’s releases, every few months. Not to mention, he’d skate through a three-album commitment well before a label was done with him. Sure, Warner would still retain the assignment until recoupment, but he’d also be free to renegotiate another advance, or sign with another label.
By the 90s, having seen new deals signed at his label by the likes of Madonna, Prince found himself in a position to renegotiate the financial terms of a new deal, and he got paid. As Melinda Newman wrote for Billboard:
The 1992 contract, which included Warner/Chappell Music Publishing, covered six albums, and allowed him to release up to one new album a year, a $10 million advance per album and a 25 percent royalty rate. It also turned Prince’s Paisley Park Records from a vanity imprint into a joint venture with Warner Bros. Without consulting Warner Bros., Prince’s publicist put out a press release touting the deal’s estimated $100 million value.
In short, Prince was paid. Separation from the label was forthcoming, but it was not about money, it was about control. To Prince, “creative control” meant not only form, style, length, instrumentation, production, and content of his music, but also how and when it would be packaged and released to the public. For a writer as prolific as Prince, timing is very important. Ideas come fast and furious and recording and releasing the ideas while they are still fresh, and relevant, was particularly important to Prince. His recording engineers tell stories of being woken in the middle of the night to rush to the studio, set it up for recording, and punch in: Prince had an idea, and it was getting cut that night. He might do a four-hour soundcheck for a three-hour gig, head to a club to play after hours, and return with his latest ideas at 6 am that needed to be put down before they were pushed out by the next.
When music, as he put it, “flows through” you at that rate, it has a shelf-life, at least for the writer and the creative spirit within. The idea of hanging on to what he would consider old recordings, just to take advantage of some market forces he considered beneath him, meant risking that when Warner was ready to release the music he delivered to them, it would not be, in his mind, relevant anymore.
“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.”
Besides, by the time Warner deemed the market ripe for the new Prince, he’d have written and recorded two or three more albums. No, this would not do, and something had to give. (He may have underestimated the relevance of his music, on his most recent release, July 2021’s Welcome 2 America but recorded in March 2010, he calls truth the new minority).
Gary Stiffleman, Prince’s attorney in the pivotal years of 1988–1994, said it plainly: “He really wanted to release the music in a way that was inconsistent with the contract…He wanted to put out an album whenever the urge struck him, and it could be a three-song album or a 70-song album.”
Melinda Newman for Billboard: “With his frustration mounting, in 1993 Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph that first appeared on the Love Symbol Album, erroneously hoping that his record contract might not be enforceable if he was, titularly at least, no longer Prince.”
By December 22, 1995, after changing his name to registered trademark ‘Love Symbol #2’, after appearing at the ’95 BRIT Awards with the word ‘SLAVE’ written on his face, and after accepting his award for Best International Male Solo by saying only: “Prince best, The Gold Experience better. In concert free. On record slave. Get wild. Peace,” the Controversy singer had come to irreconcilable differences with his label, $100 million be damned.
A press release read:
“ has officially given notice to Warner Bros. Records (WBR) of his desire to terminate his recording agreement with the company. Over the course of their nearly two-decade-long relationship, The Artist and WBR have developed irreconcilable differences. Recently, the unstable and ever-changing management structure within WBR has made it impossible for the company to effectively market and promote its flagship artists, including .
The Artist is prepared to deliver the three (3) remaining albums under his former name Prince which will fulfil his contractual to WBR. Currently, the albums are titled: Prince: The Vault — Volumes I, II and III.
will release a new recording entitled Emancipation once he is free from all ties with Time Warner.”
The letter, and Prince’s expounding thereon, can be found here.
Having satisfied the delivery terms of his original contract, Prince was free, to conduct his career as he saw fit, to contract with another label, and to write record produce and release at whatever rate, or on whatever schedule, his art demanded.
Emancipation was released on November 19, 1996, his 19th studio album, and the 3rd of his to be released that year. It is itself a triple-album: three discs of 12 songs each, a 36-song concept album that toured through different genres, and included, for the first time in his career, Prince’s cover recordings of songs written by other artists, something Warner had prevented him from doing for years.
He had won, and he was free to do as he saw fit. His battle was different from those that are in the trades these days, if Prince ever decided to re-record his tracks they would no doubt be completely reimagined, as many older tracks were if they found their way onto later releases, and this was not a fight to create new master sound recordings that he could exploit.
Prince’s battle was about control: about not selling on your creative output in such a way that prohibited you from fulfilling your full potential, to yourself and to your audience.