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Prince and the Warner’s Dispute
By Goldies Parade
Part 3 – Eye Hate U
Prince had referred to his backing band as The New Power Generation (NPG) since 1988’s Lovesexy, but it was not until 1991 after two more albums that any writing collaboration with it would be shared in his albums’ cover notes. Prince co-crediting the New Power Generation was the result of his first proper revamping of his backing band since the dissolving the Revolution in 1986, whose members were reorganised to different roles and instruments during succeeding tours or dropped completely from the line-up. With the creation of the NPG, guitarist Levi Seacer Jr. the sole survivor from the band’s Graffiti Bridge incarnation, was joined by a fresh ensemble comprising Michael Bland (replacing Shelia E. on drums), Sonny Thompson (bass), Tommy Barbarella (keyboards – replacing Revolution’s “Dr.” Matt Fink, Prince’s longest-serving band member) and Rosie Gaines (second keyboards and supporting vocals).
Funky fresh for the 90s
The band’s objective to restore Prince’s commercial appeal by tapping into the new and rapidly growing influence of hip hop, was further underlined at the recruitment of Tony Mosley as its resident rapper and Kirk (‘Kirky J’) Johnson as DJ. Prince was delighted with his new line-up. The NPG’s debut project to which they are co-credited and given equal billing with Prince, was Diamonds And Pearls. Sales of the album were strong and produced Prince his seventh and eighth number one chart singles – the title track and Cream. Although praised for its high standard of music, the album still received criticism in the press that Prince had followed rather than set the latest music trend. The album however, smashed its commercial ambitions, selling 5 million units worldwide. His commercial appeal was seen as fully restored at long last in the US.
The previous summer, however, Prince was marred in controversy with his own fan base, having been booked to play a one-off concert in Britain at Blenheim Palace on 31 August 1991, for which he had received a £300k advance. The advance paid and the rising cost to stage the show forced its cash-strapped promoters to cancel the event and the nearly 50k tickets already sold could not be refunded. Legal action was threatened, and eventually that December, Paisley Park’s director was dispatched to London to announce that fans could exchange their tickets for priority seats at the forthcoming Diamonds And Pearls Tour. The ensuing debacle over the tickets led it to become the most famous concert Prince that had never played but soured his relationship with British fans for years to follow. When the Diamonds And Pearls world tour began in the spring of 1992 it was nonetheless a considerable success and smashed venue records throughout, and most tellingly in its run of eight capacity-filled back-to-back shows at London’s 18,000 seat Earls Court arena. A total of 850,000 fans attended the tour across its 50 dates, but again Prince shied away from the US – touring where album sales were strongest: simply Europe, Japan and Australia. Following this tour, Rosie Gaines left the NPG over a disagreement with Prince. And whilst the group since passed through many incarnations the NPG remained the official moniker of Prince’s backing group right up to 2014.
The tour’s early dates served also to showcase his latest love interest and protege Carmen Electra as a rapping Go Go dance act, plus lent his creative talents to rising star Martika, writing three songs for her second album, the hits Love… Thy Will Be Done and Martika’s Kitchen, and Spirit. Marta “Martika” Marrero was widely touted at the time the next Madonna.
The success achieved with Diamonds And Pearls spurred Warner Brothers to double their efforts to extend Prince’s contract, which was about to expire, and in August 1992 signed a six album extension worth $100m – the largest recording contract to that time for a solo artist. As part of the deal, Warner also took the highly unusual step to gift the musician a seat on their board and all its trappings, including an entire suite of offices at their Century City headquarters. The contract would become a millstone around Prince’s neck and would shape and define the remainder of his career.
From the outset, Prince lamented the moment which he agreed this deal, recalling how hand shook as he signed his name to the contract, because of the extent of control and ownership of his music it transferred to Warner Brothers. To Prince, the agreement was a poisoned chalice, but he needed money to continue recording, as well as maintain the $2m annual upkeep of his Paisley Park studio complex which was kept on 24-hour standby should he wish to record at any time day or night. The contract would indeed guarantee Prince a substantial $10 million advance with each album, as long that its preceding album shipped at least 5 million units: the amount Warner needed to recoup their advance, taking into account Prince’s royalty fee of 20%. Despite Prince’s commercial success as an established artist, 1991’s Diamonds And Pearls which although enjoyed chart success, achieved just two million unit sales in the US. Collectively Prince’s historical output of all his thirteen previous and most popular albums, those released between 1978 and the contract of 1992, total sales amounted to $300 million in revenue. His releases post 1993 therefore needed to net Warner the desired $100 million over just six albums in order to profit from this investment. This was a wholly unrealistic expectation on Prince to better the success he achieved at the height of his fame in the 1980s. Particularly at this time when the landscape of mainstream music was changing and the emergence of younger artists that offered a new voice and a fresh sound to an already crowded music industry. Such would be almost an insurmountable proposition even for an artist of Prince’s calibre and broad appeal. Prince would therefore have to battle to extract future advances from Warner, and this laid the foundations in the decline of their relationship that would reach a bitter and unavoidable conclusion.
To make matters worse, a clause in the contract granted Warner ownership of all Prince’s master recordings, for not for only the life of the new contract but all previous recordings dating back to 1978. Prince was in no position to argue, his spending had spiraled out of control on lavish tours, vast entourages, as well as faced with the $6m annual upkeep of Paisley Park Studios. He was in urgent wont of cash. His fury over contract’s unfair terms, as he saw them, spurred Prince on a public and damaging crusade to claw back the ownership of his music. With Prince expecting to increase his rate of work, Warner on the other hand insisted that he actually reduce output to maximise the sales of future releases and avoid his albums competing with one another. The contract would also limit the number of concerts Prince was able to perform. Disagreement between the two deepened, and Prince grew vehemently disillusioned with Warner, since he wrote as well as hoped to release albums so prodigiously he envisaged two per year to keep pace. Warner felt this would awash the market and dilute sales, so the two struck a compromise. Despite Warner wanting him to release one album every two years, Prince settled at one release per year.
The tipping point in the dispute came with Prince’s fourteenth album, to Warner’s despair was named a confusing and unpronounceable amalgamation of the male/female ‘love’ symbols Prince love symbol – furthermore, its lead track was titled My Name Is Prince and released as two standalone singles, the dispute over his contract reached its head on 27 April 1993. Having released only the first of the six albums he was contractually required to deliver, Prince stunned Warner by declaring his intention to retire from recording. He would instead furnish the remaining albums from his vault, by which time amassed a very substantial 500 unreleased songs. Then on his birthday on 7 June that year, despite the Love Symbol Album becoming a comparative, although not massive success (shipping only half the units in the US than its preceding album had), and producing three top-ten singles, at the close of the supporting tour Prince announced his former self ‘dead’ and changed his name to the same unpronounceable moniker of the album, Prince love symbol.
It divorced my from my past.
To Prince’s mind, his birth name were more property of Warner Brothers than his own Christian name, and because the label owned all the music associated with ‘Prince’, he believed changing his name to an unpronounceable glyph would somehow void or at least highlight his protest over the contract. With no name to call him by the move mystified the press, the recording industry, and alienated his fans. Prince love symbol (typographically known as The Artist Formally Known as Prince) toured the album across the US in a leg of the tour named Act I Tour, was Prince’s first tour in his home country since Lovesexy ’88. Considering his much mocked name change, Prince’s personal reputation and commercial appeal to European audiences showed no sign of slowing down. Europe had long overtaken the US as the stronghold of his fan base: highlighted by the selling out of 72,000 seats at Wembley Stadium in less than an hour, as part of his European Act II Tour in the summer of 1993. Prince also won a string of BRITAwards in the UK for Best International Solo Artist in 1992, ’93, ’95 and ’96. This backdrop of growing public adulation bolstered the simmering hostility between Warner Brothers and their star artist.
In their attempt to recoup the considerable advances paid to Prince to produce The Love Symbol Album, in 1993 Warner released what became Prince’s first greatest hits compilation The Hits / The B-Sides. Their doing so was in direct violation of Prince’s wishes, having always viewed greatest hits packages to mark the death of an artist either professionally or literally, Prince was ideologically opposed to the release of his own, since he viewed his career was in an upswing, not decline. In response, he charged the label a veritable fortune to shoot the set’s cover photos. Planning to release it as a five-disk set, it was pared down to three, and although the release contained two new songs (Pope and Peach) Prince vowed he would no longer give new material to Warner Brothers. In place of the new material, Warner turned to the Prince’s unreleased catalogue – dusting down the 1987 master tape of The Black Album and released it in 1994. This once again outraged Prince, whom was doggedly opposed to ever allow this project see light of day.
Because he had enough material stockpiled in his fabled vault and thereby not needed to record new music for the contract’s duration, his 1994 album Come comprised tracks gleaned entirely from pre-recorded songs. Crediting the work to ‘Prince, 1958-1993’ Come became his lowest selling album to date, retailing only 500,000 copies. Faced with Prince’s resulting disappearance from radio airplay and consequently the charts, and the potential collapse of Prince’s commercial appeal entirely and with that the likelihood of never recouping their cash advances, in 1995 Warner issued two VHS releases in the same day: recordings from 1993 of the cancelled The Undertaker album and footage of the aftershow performance of the final night of the Act II Tour, The Sacrifice of Victor. Prince felt so constrained by the contract, his public reputation was further worsened by penciling of the word ‘Slave’ on his right cheek in his music videos and at every public appearance, in protest at both the contract and Warner. Refusing all interviews, the media likewise grew indifferent to Prince, who in the wake of his name change to The Artist Formally Known As Prince was further vexed at why an artist signed a $100m contract could justify the audacity to call himself a slave.
Part 4 – ‘SLAVE’
To extricate himself from Warner’s grip, Prince founded his own record label NPG Records in 1993, in a pre-empting move since the terms of the now heavily disputed contract gave Warner ultimate ownership of Paisley Park Records. From now on Prince would release his ‘new’ music – starting with GoldNigga which he credited and released under the New Power Generation – through his new and entirely independent outfit. For the albums that remained in his contracted output under Warner Brothers, Prince hoped to release his next project The Gold Experience on his thirty-seventh birthday – 7 June 1994 – but Warner quickly put a stop to that wish. Having just the previous November released The Black Album and prior to that, August’s Come, prospect of a third album within a year and a further dilution of sales was to Warner’s mind beyond the pale. At this point their relationship with Prince plunged to its lowest ebb. Prince had grown increasingly despondent and desperate for money, and was so outraged at their withholding The Gold Experience, he decided to continue regardless its promotional tour the following March. Under the banner The Ultimate Live Experience the tour was used as a platform to highlight his dispute. The tour was so named because the album it was intended to support was itself unavailable and under the ever decreasing prospect to purchase. It was during this tour that Prince took to the offensive, and on 5 March 1995 gave his first interview on British television, to BBC2’s The Sunday Show to air his frustration with Warner. The interview was typically unique in that Prince himself was masked and would not speak directly to the presenter, whom instead put her questions to his dancer (and future wife) Mayte Garcia, to whom Prince would whisper his reply to relay in return.
Warner did eventually release The Gold Experience on 25 September 1995, but throughout the tour Prince only performed his new and as yet unreleased (non-Warner) songs and in result venues did not sell out. Furthermore, the tour only visited Europe, as he refused to return to the US again until he was ‘free’ from the binds of the contract. On the condition that he pay for the release out of his own pocket, Warner Brothers had earlier allowed Prince to release the intended lead song from The Gold Experience, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, as a maxi-single through NPG Records in February 1994, stumping up $2 million of his own money to do so through a partnership with a small LA based distribution house Bellmark Records.
The song was written for his Puerto Rican choreographer and girlfriend Mayte Jannell Garcia, for whom he had also written an album named Child of the Sun. Mayte first met Prince just before the show he was performing at Mannheim, Germany, on 8 August 1990 as part of the Nude Tour. Her mother had earlier shot a video tape of Mayte dancing, and during a chance meeting with Kirk Johnson, slipped him this tape. Prince watched it, and invited Mayte to audition. Two years later she was hired as a dancer for the Diamonds And Pearls Tour and the pair were married on Valentine’s Day 1996. Crucially The Most Beautiful Girl In The World became a surprise international hit and was Prince’s first (and only) single to chart number one in the UK. This was hugely significant in that the release achieved such veritable success without the assistance of Warner Brothers. Prince celebrated this milestone by releasing yet another maxi-single The Beautiful Experience, another industry first: a single in promotion of another single, and was likewise released under NPG Records.
Also unusually, as lead single, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World predated by some considerable nineteen months the eventual release of the album it was intended to promote, Warner’s The Gold Experience. Yet Prince had released this single so early, it predated even the release of the previous album, Come. To Warner’s eyes their star act was spiraling beyond control, but to Prince, the song’s success and distribution through independent channels provided above all the realisation that he needed to no longer rely on any help and promotion from a major label after all. Now unwilling to record the new material which he would otherwise have to hand to Warner Brothers, Prince turned to alternative outlets to generate him much needed revenue streams. On 30 April 1994 he opened the NPG Store in London’s trendy Camden Lock, and launched the video game Interactive on 7 June 1994 – the very day that he originally hoped would see the release of The Gold Experience.
Take my name, I don’t need it.
In the UK, Prince’s popularity was growing from strength to strength and he visited the country increasingly often on tour, as his Camden shop was likewise rousing increasing popularity. But his feud with Warner Brothers continued to tarnish his public image in tabloids everywhere. When collecting his BRITAward in London’s Alexandra Palace on 21 February 1995, Prince used his acceptance speech to attack Warner, whose executives thronged the tables next to the stage: “Prince, best? Gold Experience, better. On record, slave.” To Prince, his $100m contract was nothing other than bound servitude. Indeed, the price at which Warner retailed Prince’s music had become yet another bone of contention. The upkeep of Paisley Park was hemorrhaging money, and Prince’s past spending on staff, sumptuous parties and his two Glam Slam nightclubs in Minneapolis and Miami, for years had forced him to extract ever-increasing advances from Warner. But the label had grown weary of the demands and bridging Prince’s personal expenditure, the open dispute over the contract entrenched the two parties deeper than ever. Prince was consumed in his quest to reclaim ownership of his past music and began a one-man crusade to improve the publishing rights of artists, telling them to abandon their labels because the record companies were more bent on the business of music (Prince protesting in song: “twelve CD’s for a $1. Makes me wanna holla.”) than nurturing artistic talent. “Money and art don’t mix” became his mantra.
On 22 December 1995, Prince declared he would fulfil his contract only by providing Warner the remaining requirement of three albums with material gleaned from the vault. The first of these was Chaos And Disorder, which also gave Prince the final opportunity to launch a spiteful parting swipe at his soon-to-be former record label. The album, mostly recorded in 1994, was released in July 1996, and was filled with tracks that unleashed brooding, contempt and frustration at Warner Brothers, such as Dig U Better Dead, I Rock Therefore I Am, Right The Wrong, Chaos And Disorder and its closing song, not only for the album but the sign-off to his Warner career, Had U (its ending lyrics, a pointedly “Fuck you”). Neither party was keen to promote it and the album sunk without trace in result. Warner too, weary at advancing Prince ever more money, attempted to recoup their losses by closing down Paisley Park Records on 1 February 1994. In anticipation of that action, Prince swiftly released through NPG Records the leftovers of Paisley’s unfinished project showcasing the songs written by him and recorded by the artists he signed to that label. The album released was 1-800 NEW FUNK which also became the order line phone number to Prince’s mail order service, and later his pioneering internet retail store 1800newfunk.com which he launched in 1997.
There ain’t no winners in this game.
Undeterred, in 1995 NPG Records released more of his ‘new’ music, the Exodus album, credited to The New Power Generation. For this release Prince once more changed his name, due to the pending threat of legal action from Warner – this time adopting the moniker Tora Tora, the infamous war cry ‘attack, attack’ employed in the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbour. The premise of Exodus was to proclaim that the flood of artists leaving their recording contracts was begun: in it referring to Warner in all but name as ‘that record company’. The three albums struggled commercially as the public’s disillusionment with Prince deepened. Glam Slam, closed down in October 1995, was followed by his Camden retail store in October 1996. Prince made promotional appearances for Exodus with his face shrouded by a scarf, as Warner threatened legal action for breach of contract. But by July 1996, Prince’s contractual obligations for Warner were fulfilled, providing them the required output of six albums – although the contract itself would not fully expire until 31 December 1999. That March, he provided Warner material for the soundtrack for their movie Girl 6 for which Prince also granted a rare concession that they could market it under the name ‘Prince’ because his close friend Spike Lee directed the film. Girl 6 contained just one newly written song, the title track.
Having now met his obligations to Warner Brothers and able to release music at the rate he desired, Prince quickly realised the material distributed through NPG Records only penetrated his core fan base. For this next project, and what would become his third release of 1996, Prince teamed up with EMI Records, interestingly a major label, to put out his first ever triple album. Comprising 36 brand new songs, the album was named Emancipation in celebration of his freedom from the past constraint on his output, this 180 minute collection contained a veritable gold mine of the ‘new’ music he recorded but subsequently denied Warner while waiting to fulfill the contract with pre-existing material. Surprising many by its perfect blend of scale and quality, Emancipation attracted critical acclaim and charted at number 11 on Billboard – an impressive feat for a triple CD and became the fourth biggest selling triple album in US history. Despite his not-unsurprising distrust with major labels, Prince’s relationship with EMI proved cordial and the antitheses of his experience with Warner, but during Emancipation‘s promotion EMI fell into bankruptcy, and Prince’s future ambitions with the label had to be realised elsewhere.
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