I’m shedding Purple Tears tonight, for I too have sinned.
Prince Rogers Nelson died Thursday, April 21, in his native Minnesota…the place he lived his whole life and in which he built his immense musical legacy.
His death makes an already grim 2016 unbearably worse, coming on the heels of the deaths of fellow music icons David Bowie, Maurice White, Glenn Frey and Merle Haggard (not to mention Natalie Cole whose death occurred on December 31, but we learned of January 1).
But Prince’s death is perhaps more shocking and impactful than any others’ this year. In fact, except for maybe Whitney Houston’s in 2012, not since Michael Jackson’s passing in 2009 has a musician’s death rocked the music world as much as Prince’s has.
Sure, Bowie, Cole, Haggard, White and Frey were icons. But Prince was something beyond that.
Prince was a musical god. He was a mover, a shaker, a game changer, a power player, an innovator, a Svengali, an entrepreneur, a boss, a mentor, a protégé…and those were just superlatives he earned within the music industry.
He was an eclectic artist, defying gender and racial boundaries. He dabbled in just about every music genre imaginable and sold between 100 -150 million records in the process.
He was the consummate artist, having written and produced just about everything he recorded. The hits were fewer in the end, but his musicianship never diminished.
He was also the king of duplicity often combining spirituality and sexuality in the same collective works, straddling a line that had been rarely crossed before and daring us not to like it (which we usually did, whether we admitted it or not).
But Prince was also an activist and an anarchist, he was a radical and a diminutive badass who called his own shots (and often those of other people around him).
He famously protested the very industry in which he thrived, at times seemingly intentionally dooming his own commercial potential to prove a point.
His war with Warner Brothers Records, itself a major player in the industry and the label Prince called home for the first 20 years of his career, was legendary. At a paltry 5-foot-2, he stood tall among industry giants. He was the David to Warner Brothers’ Goliath.
Yes, other artists had battled their labels before – that was nothing new. But Prince fought an all-out, protracted war, famously changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, painting his face with the word “Slave,” and releasing multiple albums in rapid succession to speed up his “emancipation” – emancipation from a label Prince felt was limiting his creative freedom and not properly marketing his ’90s albums.
None of those albums – circa mid-1990s – were promoted to nearly the extent that his ’80s output was. And it’s that ’80s legacy (along with that of the late 1970s and early ’90s) for which people will remember him most.
Consider his immense success before the war with Warner began: at one point in 1984, Prince was the biggest artist in the world, with a single (“When Doves Cry”), album and movie (Purple Rain) that were simultaneously #1 on their respective charts. He ultimately became one of the most successful artists of the decade and it appeared that he would remain so into the ensuing one.
The war with Warner and his own creative impulses halted that momentum…but not without a purpose. That His Royal Badness would forsake all of that earlier success and the potential for more so that other artists might experience the kind of contractual liberties, royalty payments and creative ownership he sought was at once considered lunacy and bravery.
What Prince and those who unconditionally supported him viewed as persistence, some considered irrational. Going up against the Goliath that was Warner Bros (and later taking on the biggest streaming services), were indeed boss moves, but moves that were also far too under-appreciated at the time.
Not only were they under-appreciated by fellow musicians – musicians who refused to join his cause – but by some of us fans as well.
We didn’t support him en masse, for example, when he sold albums independently from major labels, either from a personal website or as packaged with box-office tickets from a concert tour. Prince was going back to grass-roots efforts – the ’90s and ’00s equivalent of selling one’s records out of the back of a pickup truck so that he controlled how much of the revenue he received.
But we so-called fans were happier when his music was more readily accessible, either on mainstream radio, in record stores or on digital download and streaming platforms. At least I know I was.
We didn’t like it when he pulled his music and any representation of it from social media and streaming sites like YouTube, Spotify and others. Nevermind that he was making a point about the meager royalty rates (to the tune of fractions of a cent per on-demand stream) that were paid to the artists…even ones of Prince’s legendary stature. We selfishly wanted to have cheap easy access to his music just like that of any other of our favorite artists. At least I know I did.
But all Prince (and other similarly committed artists like Garth Brooks and more recently Taylor Swift) wanted was a fairer share of the money pie. They wanted the big labels to know who was buttering their bread and that those people – the artists – deserved better compensation for it.
Yet we “fans” were selfish. We wanted the cheap pleasures and convenience that digital downloading and streaming afforded us, and we complained when Prince’s catalog wasn’t available to us via that media.
We cursed his name and the fact that, in this world of ever-changing technology, our iTunes libraries or CD collections (or heaven forbid, those old vinyl albums) were the only ways in which we could reasonably enjoy Prince’s biggest classics.
At least, I know I did.
Now Prince is gone, having lost a physical battle with whatever (or whoever) took his life on April 21, 2016.
But His Purple Highness ultimately won the war, the war he fought with one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) record labels in the music business. He allegedly reconnected with Warner Bros. in 2014, but he won ownership rights to his vast music catalog in exchange.
He also left this life on his own terms, never relenting to a music industry that was and is still known for chewing up and spitting out its own like stale bubblegum.
In addition to being one of the greatest musicians that ever lived, Prince was a man of principle, never compromising that in which he believed, and never giving up the fight against the industry that, ironically, helped make him the iconic legend that he was.
As I type this, questions remain as to exactly how Prince died, who – if anyone – will pick up his torch, and will his most popular music ever be made available on popular streaming services like Spotify (his last two albums were released exclusively on Jay Z’s TIDAL streaming service in 2015 before CDs were made available).
And, if the classics ever are released on the major streaming sites, will we remember the fight Prince fought so hard so that he and other artists might reap as many of the benefits of their creative work as they deserved?
Or will we be happy just to be able to access all those early Prince classics with the touch of a button on our smartphones?
And what about all the reportedly hundreds of songs he had recorded over the years but had yet to release? Will we shamelessly stream and download it when some opportunistic label decides to capitalize on the death of this legendary artist?
Yes, I am crying purple tears tonight…for Prince died for my musical sins.
May you rest in peace, Prince Nelson Rogers.
To see a DJRob ranking of his best songs, click here.