The world lost a true artist today. Prince — prolific songwriter, artist, sex symbol, music pioneer, elite guitarist, and all-around icon — left us for another world at the too-young age of 57.
Plenty of us will surely be grieving with The Purple One's catalog of fantastic records. Or by watching Purple Rain. Or revisiting that crazy-amazing guitar solo he slaughtered during a star-studded performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Or by reflecting on how his Batman soundtrack affected our perception of The Dark Knight. Or remembering all of his amazing outfits. Or even just doodling the damn Love Symbol that used to be his name in a spiral notebook like we're teenagers again. No matter how differently we're grieving, our common ground is that the tears are coming easy today.
Even with his vast catalogue and irrefutable cultural imprint, I think perhaps Prince's most important legacy is his persistent struggle to swing the balance of power from the record labels/establishment in favor of the artists. The music industry is notorious for chewing up its performers and spitting them out — often without ownership of their own material — and Prince was one of the most vocal proponents for change. He even memorably, and perhaps controversially, compared record label contracts to slavery.
In his famous battle with label Warner Bros. that began in 1993, Prince would appear in public with the word "slave" scrawled on his face and change his name to an unpronounceable symbol as a way to distance himself from the label — and thus "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" was born — and simultaneously sparked a long-running wave of late-night-TV monologue jokes that always seemed to miss the point, unfairly pegging him as a hard-to-please divo.
He explained the name change to Larry King in 1999:
"I had to search deep within my heart and spirit and I wanted to make a change and move to a new plateau in my life. And one of the ways in which I did that was to change my name. It sort of divorced me from the past and all the hang-ups that go along with it."
But the name change and vocal criticism of the record industry was an important cultural touchstone for how we look at the relationship between an artist and their material. Prince had a long history of battles with record labels beyond Warners that I won't dive into (The Guardian has a great and concise breakdown, if you're looking for more information), but in the decade to follow the fight with WB, music would go digital and a new generation would develop a very strange sense of entitlement that tragically continues to this day.
The advent of Napster and similar illegal file sharing programs, streaming services and iTunes — as we know — drastically altered the structure of the music industry. While record labels and retailers were certainly impacted, so too were the artists as the labels tried to tighten their grip on a business that was slowly becoming foreign to them.
Prince went against the grain on all of these new modern developments; he recently removed his music from most streaming services, fought battles with file sharing sites, and even took on YouTube. He was immensely protective of his copyrights and in doing so let the world know that artists are not content machines put on Earth to gift us entertainment; much the same as an accountant, architect or fast food employee, they deserve to be paid for the work they do. And as a creator, artists should be entitled to not only profits from their work, but complete ownership of their material.
In 2009, Prince visited Tavis Smiley and talked about the deceptive sales numbers of the industry and how he never actually knew just how many records Purple Rain actually sold, which is utterly crazy:
Of course, skeptics and critics would accuse him of being paranoid or claiming that he already had plenty of money, but that's beside the point — and conveniently ignores his plentiful charitable contributions to music education, environmental causes, and AIDS foundations. In this great — and quite rare — television interview with George Lopez from 2011, Prince concisely explained his constant fight to get musicians the ownership and royalties they deserve, saying:
In a world where piracy of music, television, movies and books is widespread and cynically accepted, it's difficult not to view Prince's death as not only a major loss to entertainment and our own personal relationships with music, but as a major blow to the fight to keep art in the hands of artists, where it belongs.
Prince's music has certainly been an influence on every musician to follow in his footsteps, but the more important message — for the betterment, purity and independence of art — is for these artists to take control of their work.
Further, as consumers and fans, we should recognize this fight as a legitimate one and do our part to support the artists that provide us with so much of themselves that we feel like a piece of our own souls has disappeared along with them on their journey to the next world.