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Prince: Defender of His Legacy

“Record companies are run by men who think they run America. They think they’re the smartest but they’re not. They don’t know what’s going on inside my mind.” That was the verdict Prince (then known by that infamous symbol of his own creation) rendered to NME’s Andy Richardson in 1995. You can’t swing a display rack without clipping a major-label act who holds the same opinion. But Prince was another deal entirely, a company unto himself: an A&R man, a songwriter and song doctor, an arranger, a designer and director. His profligate recording habit and stylistic promiscuity could’ve filled a major-label release schedule for months: hits for the Time, Sheena Easton, Sheila E., Tevin Campbell, the Bangles, Chaka Khan. And, of course, hits galore for the man himself: pop hits, R&B hits, dance hits, video hits, international hits — and for a second, box-office hits.

To keep those hits coming for everyone, Warner Bros. negotiated a contract extension in 1992, tacking five more albums onto the one yet to be delivered. The deal gave his Paisley Park label a $20 million infusion, and made Warner Bros. an equal partner in the venture. Prince himself was fronted another $20 million in a publishing partnership, and became a VP of A&R at Warner (so he could acquire Time Warner stock). Even though his biggest-selling record was nearly a decade behind him, with his track record of developing and attracting talent, the deal seemed like a good bet.

His people put out a release trumpeting the deal as a $100 million contract (bigger than Madonna’s, bigger than Michael’s). Warner pitched a fit: They didn’t want other artists to pick up Prince’s gauntlet. Like an NFL contract, management and talent were running different numbers. Reports emerged that the deal called for a $10 million advance per album, but only if the previous album had sold five million copies (something that had only happened for three Prince LPs up to that point). Otherwise, the advance was negotiable, and Warner Bros. could recoup their cash from royalties on past Prince records (the masters of which they now owned). The men who thought they ran America asked Prince to record fewer albums, so that singles could be properly marketed in order to get each album over the five-million target. But Prince figured he was being paid to be Prince.

The result was war. After one record named for that infamous Love Symbol — over Warner’s objections, “My Name Is Prince” was the first single, rather than “7,” the album’s only single to break into the Top 30 — Prince declared that he would fulfill his contract with already-recorded material. The day he turned 35, he declared that his name wasn’t Prince. “Prince” was now a brand, he said, a brand owned by his label. (In an accommodating gesture, Warner Bros. mailed press outlets 3.5-inch disks with his new, symbolic name encoded as a one-character font.) Warner withheld the release of 1995’s The Gold Experience and ended its distribution with Paisley Park Records; the Artist took to writing “SLAVE” on his face whenever he ventured in public.

This, for me, is the most fascinating Prince: the righteous rocker, the boxer on the ropes, enduring zings from the press and fellow musicians in the pursuit of what was his. No star on his level fought so hard while sweating so little. The common perception of Prince was of a mystery ensconced in purple. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say he only expended energy on things that pleased him — and what pleased him was the playing, not the explaining. Burned by some unnamed scribe, he maintained an ongoing no-recording, no-notes policy for years; profile writers would just have to focus that much harder on Prince. The battles between Prince and his would-be chroniclers were generally one-sided: He was too clever, too obstinate, too seductive. Those who asked about Michael Jackson or his vault of unreleased jams weren’t cast outside the Paisley gates. Sometimes they got asked to play the drums. Sometimes, if they really bored him, they got cut off with the Twilight Zone theme. He wasn’t cruel; his generosity just had its limit.

Warner Bros. and journalistic misrepresentation weren’t his only foes, of course. He retained legal help to keep the web scrubbed of unauthorized Prince content. “I have a team of female black lawyers who keep an eye on such transgressions,” he noted to Billboard in 2013, “And you know they’re sharp.” In June 2007, Universal (the administrator of his publishing at the time) filed a takedown notice with Stephanie Lenz, a YouTube user who’d uploaded a brief video of her baby bopping to “Let’s Go Crazy.” Though YouTube restored the video, Lenz sued, claiming fair use. Universal appealed her right to sue; last September, an appeals court affirmed that right. While all this was going on, Prince’s team issued notices against offending Vines and filed suit against people who posted concert footage on Facebook. (Once the videos were taken down, the suits were dropped.)

Were it anyone else, these notices might’ve been more galling. (The Electronic Frontier Foundation roasted Prince, but they had a lot of fun doing so.) But presentation was part and parcel of Prince’s artistry. His unease with the tormented funk of 1987’s The Black Album prompted him to withdraw the record right before it dropped; it took seven years, widespread bootlegging, and (reportedly) a million dollars before he approved the record for release in 1994. He was notorious for relieving music-video directors of their duties mid-shoot, or simply overriding their vision at the start. Via his NPG label, he opened and shuttered a host of websites, many devoted to promoting a single album. He could even alienate people who wanted to sell his records: Columbia refused to release 2007’s Planet Earth in Britain after Prince struck a deal with The Mail On Sunday to give the album away in its newspapers. Whatever sales he lost in the shops he earned back from a series of sold-out London concerts. In business and in life, Prince was a peculiar mixture of candor and caution, and he never apologized for either trait.

In fact, he only got better at each. This past Monday marked the two-year anniversary of Prince’s rapprochement with Warner Bros. Rather than risk a costly court battle over reversion rights, Warner kept the ability to license and reissue the albums Prince recorded for them, while Prince finally got his masters back. “People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘SLAVE’ on my face,” he said to Rolling Stone in 1996. “But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I?… If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.” Two weeks before the 2014 Warner Bros. deal, he reclaimed his publishing. But as he’d done his entire life, he chose not to dwell on his commercial heyday or worry about repackaging his legacy. There were too many projects to pursue; too much going on inside that remarkable mind.