Prince - More Than a Symbol (Pt. 3)

In part 2, I made note of the Sec. 203 of the Copyright Act and the provision that allows recording artists to recapture copyrights originally assigned to the recording companies, (usually the master recordings).  Otherwise, recording companies have generally held on to the assigned copyrights in the recordings to squeeze out all the sales conceivably available from a full-length album until sec. 203 rights manifest. By the time Prince was signed with Warner Bros. (1978), the recording industry was utilizing a fairly tried-and-tested method of utilizing new artists.  This included recording, mixing, and mastering new material, mass producing the material, and promoting the record (and the artist) through touring.  For new artists, a new batch of material for release was expected on a fairly steady twelve-month cycle.

For many artists, this proved to be a grueling process - especially the incessant touring.  Moreover, as artists became established, and their contracts were re-negotiated, the time-crunch eased somewhat, thereby allowing artists to move to a two-year cycle.  For most.

Prince proved to be the exception - an artist ill-fit for contemporaneous business standards and a throw-back to the days of James Brown and Elvis Presley recording and releasing a new single every 8-10 weeks for months/years on-end.  Not content to write and record a single full-length album once per year, Prince proved rather prodigious in both the volume of his writing and the quality in the volume.

From 1984's "Purple Rain" soundtrack through 1992's "Love Symbol Album", Warner Bros. released one Prince album per calendar year.  On paper, there is hardly anything unusual or extraordinary about that fact.  Yet, the musical genius was constantly writing and recording and pushing the boundaries of the industry's business model.

For example, 1987's "Sign O' the Times" was a double-length album.  "Sign" was an outgrowth from a double-album conceived and recorded in 1985-86 with Revolution band-mates Wendy & Lisa that fizzled as those relationships fizzled.  After the release of "Parade" in 1986, Prince started work on what would become a triple-length album performed by an alter-ego of sorts (an "eponymous" title "Camille") that was also shelved.  All the while, Prince was also recording material to meet his contract obligations and also churning out excess material for artists like the Bangles, Sheila E., and other minor musical acts.

From Warner Bros. perspective, the company had a bit of a paradox on its hands.  In the newly established MTV generation, the public could not get enough of Prince (or so it seemed).  Yet, the fear of over-exposure is ever-present.  Moreover, in the post-Thriller music world, the life-cycle of albums and singles had changed, and the window for maximizing marketing opportunities for albums had lengthened considerably.   With Prince, Warner Bros. was not yet even phasing down its marketing for the current release when Prince was handing the company new material for distribution and promotion.  As is oft-said of basketball great Michael Jordan:  the only person that could hold MJ below 20 points was (college coach) Dean Smith; for Prince, the only party that could hold him back was the Warner Bros. machine.

Because of the leverage it possessed, Warner Bros. typically won these content-volume battles.  While certainly proud of the work he had recently wrote and recorded, Prince did not sit-back in admiration, but rather was always moving forward and living in the now.  His motto or creed seemed to be:  that [the past] is great, but what's next?  As Variety recently recalled in an interview with a former WBs executive, Prince had a lot to say and wanted to say it now (rather than later), and was unconcerned by the marketing and promotion perils caused by his high-volume approach.

(Part 4 explores the rising tensions between Prince and Warner Bros. that came to a head in the early 90s)