Prince - More Than a Symbol (Pt. 4)

Although Prince was annoyed (if not frustrated) by Warner Bros. controlling the throttle on his musical output, further exacerbated by Warner Bros. shutting-down Prince's "independent" Paisley Park Records (based in Minneapolis), the real frustration and anger bubbled from the control that Warner Bros. had over the artist's back catalog.  For certain, this was the standard in the industry, but it did not subdue to feelings that artists had little control over their works, and worse - they had no ownership stake in the sound recordings. As he recalled during a lengthy interview with CNN's Larry King in Dec. 1999, Prince explained this chief complaint about the industry (and Warner Bros. in particular), manifesting as an issue of monetization and control.   As noted in the interview, Prince said he would have to re-record individual titles to gain control over back catalog songs, and that he had re-recorded "1999" (a new master recording) for this purpose.  This is a practice that has become more common-place (esp. in light of the sec. 203 termination provision); on the extreme end of the scale, in 2012, Def Leppard began re-recording their classic hits as a way to bypass their label's (Universal Music Group) accounting methodology for digital downloads.

Against this backdrop, and unable to shake WBs bonds over his works, Prince began to implement a rather interesting series of tactics to leverage some control away from the company.  At first, Prince scrawled the word "Slave" onto the side of his face - an intentionally bombastic and inflammatory visual cue.  On the legal side, the artist adopted a symbol as his recording and performing persona, an amalgamation of the male and female symbols - while dropping all reference to "Prince" and eventually referenced as "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince", "TAFKAP", or simply "The Artist".

By disassociating himself from his stage name "Prince" and adopting a wholly different symbol as a reference point, in a somewhat humorously coincidental turnabout, Warner Bros. was forced to promote "Prince" material without much cooperation from the artist himself.  For example, the single "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" is Prince's only no. 1 hit in the UK - it was recorded and released approx. 18-months before it appeared on a "Prince" album (The Gold Experience - released Sept. 1995), a move that was mostly unthinkable in that era.  Even more astonishing is that Warner Bros. allowed The Symbol to release and distribute the single through a series of independent labels and distributors - something that Warner Bros. probably regretted as the single ascended the charts (esp. in the UK), but was conceded as a means to appease the musical star.

The tensions between The Symbol and Warner Bros. were somewhat resolved by the artist gaining his release from the Warner Bros. label in 1996 - an event celebrated by the artist in naming his first release on his new label "Emancipation" - and not surprisingly, a triple-length album at that.  Ironically, this was the third release by Prince/The Symbol in 1996, with Warner Bros. having released the other two albums before EMI released "Emancipation".

Despite the difficulties between the parties, this would not be the last time the artist would work with Warner Bros.  As part of a significant (and unusual business deal in the music industry), in 2014, Warner Bros. agreed to assign the ownership of his master recordings back to Prince in exchange for a business deal that brought Prince back to Warner Bros. (though it is not clear whether the masters are returned in one large package or piece-meal according to the Copyright Act's termination provision in sec. 203).

This deal also led to the release of two full-length albums (see 2014's double release of "Plectrumelectrum" and "Art Official Age") on the same day.   The deal seemed to place Prince in control of his work, but with the understanding that Warner Bros. would be the go-to distributor on his Warner Bros. back catalog and on any new material produced through Prince's "independent" NPG Records label.  The impending opportunity for Prince to recapture the sound recording copyrights (originally assigned to Warner Bros.) certainly shifted the leverage in his favor and cleared the deck for Prince to finally wrest control over his WB works from the company.

(Part 5 will take a look at other aspects of intellectual property that Prince utilized to his favor)