What Prince Taught Me About Business
29th April 2016
I was saddened by the loss of Prince. For years his music has been the soundtrack to so many good times in my life, and also a strong connection to those that share a love for his music.
Prince’s legacy as a musician, a singer, a style icon and an endlessly creative mind is nearly unparalleled. He applied his creativity to fashion, to film, and to the music industry in every genre from pop to soul to jazz to R&B to funk to hip-hop and everywhere in between. His impact is legendary.
His resilience, stamina, originality, tenacity, and proficiency set him apart from his peers.
As an artist, Prince demonstrated a knack and a capability for business. While listening to selections from his 39 albums, that can be played over 26 hours, I am inspired to share with you what I learned from Prince about business.
From his outfits, to his music, to his performances; Prince was always original.
He started trends instead of following them and inspired so many musicians with his craft. Sadly we lost both David Bowie and Prince this year. These two artists were the greatest shapeshifters music has ever seen. They were bold, disruptive and brilliant, and left very strange shoes to fill.
Prince set the bar he strived to raise, with no interest in what anyone else was doing. He created a strong brand and invited others to live it and share with him.
“He’d get bored of himself before anybody else had the chance to,” wrote Alex Godfrey of Vice. “Back then, when he released classic albums every two weeks, he never stopped pioneering, setting fashion trends every time he appeared, then setting fire to them and creating new ones the next time he stepped out the door.”
Prince once advised Justin Bieber, “The key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can.”
Prince always held control over his craft in the utmost importance. When he felt bullied by Warner he publically appeared with “Slave” written on his face, changed his name to a symbol, launched his own label and did business with just about every one of Warner’s rivals, just to spite them. He started with a none-too-subtly titled “Emancipation” album with EMI.
Although he was one of the first artists to release an album online, Prince eventually became “the artist who formerly liked the Internet.”
“The Internet’s completely over,” he said in 2010. “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it, and then they get angry when they can’t get it.”
Since then he maintained strict control over his music copyrights and fought to keep it off streaming sites like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube.
Because of his profile Prince led the efforts to protect artists and their work online. He was not necessarily against having his music online, he just wanted you to pay for it.
His image was often one of a brooding prima donna. But make no mistake about it – Prince worked harder than anyone in music.
In a 2015 interview with The Guardian he described his commitment to the craft in saying:
“Larry King asked me once, ‘Didn’t you need a record company to make it?’ But that has nothing to do with it. I was well-known starting out, we had a great band and every time we played, we got better. We also had studio work, so the more we recorded the better we got. This is what you’ve got to do, and if you’ve got great folk around you and a good teacher, you’re going to excel at it. You don’t need a record company to turn you into anything. It wasn’t like they were directing our flow whatsoever, you know. I had autonomous control from the very beginning to make my album.”
Prince was a multi-instrumentalist who played every track on several albums, a producer of other artists’ hits and an interpreter of covers superior to the original.
His commitment to putting the work in went way beyond the studio, extending into to his live shows.
In an interview in 2004 he recalled how he was humbled when seeing the opening act that he created was better prepared than his own band.
“Oh, you can’t go out there unless you’ve got the show completely in shape. It can look pretty wild onstage, but everyone knows exactly where they’re supposed to be. That was a lesson I had to learn from when I was starting out,” he told The Word.
“When we first went out behind 1999, The Time, who were opening for us, beat us up every night. They would laugh about it; it was a joke to them. Our show wasn’t together. I had to stop the tour and get things tightened up. Now me and the band have a certain relationship with each other, and every night we make the audience part of that.”
This is the man who wrote, “Everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day, oh but before I let that happen, I’ll dance my life away, oh ho” in his masterpiece, 1999.
In the face of Armageddon, just keep dancing.
It was apparent how much fun Prince had on stage, and well publicized how much fun everyone had at his (in)famous dance parties.
I once attended a four-hour mega show put on by Prince and felt that he was only getting started. While some DJs can spin for hours, Prince’s encyclopedic catalogue of music covered rock to jazz to soul and he knew all the songs by heart.
What is the point of succeeding if you’re not going to enjoy it?
His often cold persona with the media hid what an amazingly generous man he was. He wrote songs for others, like “Nothing Compares 2 U” – the song that made Sinead O’Connor.
He inspired so many with his music and showed other people close to him how to shine, including Sheila E and Rosie Gaines. He was a teacher who valued other teachers. He told Tavis Smiley, “That’s what makes the world go around. We all need each other, and again, it’s about good mentoring and good teachers. I had a lot of good people around.”
Tell Your Story
Part of the that emotional connection he made with his audiences was leaving them with so many memorable stories in his lyrics. Unlike rock’s other great storytellers (Lennon, Dylan, and so many others), Prince always eschewed his story slightly with more abstract themes so the listener could paint their own picture.
He explains his process in a 1983 issue of Musician:
“If I were to write a letter to a friend, and tell them about an experience, I wouldn’t say how it made me feel; I would say exactly what I did, so that they could experience it, too, rather than the intellectual point of view. If you give them a situation, maybe that you’ve encountered, or whatever, give them the basis of it, let them take it to the next stage, they make the picture in their own mind. I know I’m happiest making records like this, making records that tell the truth and don’t beat around the bush.” (The Lyrics of Prince Rogers Nelson: A Literary Look at a Creative, Musical Poet, Philosopher and Storyteller Nov 1996 by C. Liegh McInnis).
Storytelling is the most impactful marketing because we all find a connection in the shared experience. Who knows how many more countless stories Prince would have shared with us and how many more he left for us to discover in his secret vault.
Please share your thoughts – how Prince has inspired you?