Prince's Push for Control Set Example for Today's Artists

  • Superstar kept ownership of recordings, limited use online
  • His efforts strengthened the hands of later stars like Adele

Remembering Prince: Outspoken Artist and Musical Exemplar

Music legend Prince left as big a mark behind the scenes of the recording industry as he did on his millions of fans.

The artist, who died Thursday at age 57 at his home near Minneapolis, waged a relentless campaign for control over his music empire as the Internet era dawned. His crusade left a playbook for stars like Taylor Swift and Adele, who now have the power to dictate how and where their songs get played.

Prince

Photographer: Neil Lupin/Redferns

It cost him plenty. Spats with record labels kept the legendary performer’s music from reaching the widest possible audience. At one point, he dropped his name for an ankh-like symbol, making it tough to advertise his recordings. Whoever gains control of the full catalog, valued at $100 million or more, will have to decide whether to make the rocker’s songs available for commercial ditties, a source of revenue that Prince himself shunned.

“He just never wanted to be taken advantage of,” said L. Lee Phillips, a lawyer who represented Prince for about 12 years. “Certainly, he is going to leave somewhat of a legacy, artists standing up for themselves -- but not as strong as his legacy performing and playing.”

Prince’s publicist and lawyer didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In the 1990s, Prince broke away from his music label, Warner Bros. Records, and wrote “slave” on his cheek, because he felt he lacked artistic control. In 2007, he considered suing YouTube for not removing unauthorized postings of his songs. He also limited availability of his works on popular streaming services, pulling songs from everywhere except Tidal.

“His music probably was not as readily available to a lot of people,” said Vickie Nauman, owner of CrossBorderWorks, a Los Angeles-based entertainment and technology consultant. “He probably didn’t have as many people hearing every song he ever produced. That’s a personal choice that he made. And there was certainly no shortage of fandom. Every time he had a concert, it would sell out.”

After leaving Warner, Prince, who was born Prince Rogers Nelson, formed his own label, funding and recording his own work. He signed a series of one-off deals with groups including Sony Corp.’s Columbia, retaining ownership over his master recordings.

Prince performs at the Madison Square Garden in 2011.
Prince performs at the Madison Square Garden in 2011.
Photographer: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

In 2010, amid a painful slide in sales for the entire music industry, Prince famously proclaimed “the Internet is over” for any musician who wants to get paid.

Those words may have resonated with the managers of today’s top stars, like Adele. In November, the British recording artist spurned streaming services and made her new album “25” available initially only for purchase and became No. 1 for the year almost instantly. It’s a top seller in 2016, too. Taylor Swift had limited streaming of her album “1989” a year earlier.

Ted Cohen, a longtime music executive who worked with Prince in his early years at Warner, recalls scheduling two meetings with the entertainer in 2007 to discuss opportunities to exploit his work online. Cohen traveled to Las Vegas and London for talks that never got started.

“I believe he left a lot of money on the table, and he was overly protective when he had an audience that loved what he did,” Cohen recalled. “He could have had as much control as he wanted.”

In 2014, with the copyrights to old works about to revert back to the artist, Prince worked out a deal with Warner Music Group whereby ownership was transferred to his name, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Under the deal, Warner operates the business in perpetuity in the U.S., with the parties sharing the proceeds, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing nonpublic terms. Warner still has the rights outside the U.S.

The label on Thursday posted a tribute photo of the late artist on its website.

Prince’s total music copyright catalog -- if it were to go on sale -- may be worth at least $100 million, said Derek Crownover, the entertainment-law practice leader at Dickinson Wright PLLC.

Limitations that Prince put on the use of the music during his lifetime could shrink that value. If his estate or a potential buyer tries to make the catalog more widely available than he wanted, fans might rebel, said Steve Salm, chief corporate development officer at Concord Bicycle Music, which has acquired many musical copyrights, and owns works, including those from Ray Charles, Creed, Kenny G and Nine Inch Nails.

“They very well might have to respect what Prince stood for and honor similar usages or risk significant alienation to some extent,” Salm said. “Thus a catalog such as Prince’s would most likely not be valued from a ‘maximization of cash flows and market multiple.”’

On the other hand, commercial opportunities for Prince’s music may prove too lucrative to resist.

“If the keeper of the flame is someone who is following his wishes, they could be as protective as he was,” said Cohen, who traveled with Prince in the early years. “If the catalog falls into the hands of someone who didn’t have that relationship, it could open the floodgates. You could have Purple Rain shampoo.”

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