How Prince Won His Master Tapes Back From Warner Bros.
One of the music industry’s most turbulent and public disputes reached a surprisingly calm coda on Apr. 18, 2014, when Prince released a short statement confirming that his fight with the Warner Bros. label had ended.
Not only was the dispute over, but Prince had re-signed with the company he’d accused of treating him like a "slave" in the ‘90s. “A brand-new studio album is on the way and both Warner Bros. Records and Eye are quite pleased with the results of the negotiations and look forward to a fruitful working relationship," he said in a statement – the “Eye” referring to himself.
The deal also included a 30th anniversary edition of Purple Rain; but much, much more importantly, it gave Prince complete ownership of all the recordings he’d made with Warners over the years. Control was essential to Prince, who simply felt that someone who creates art should have complete say over what happens to that art.
The dispute had boiled over in the early ‘90s. An increasingly prolific artist wanted to release his music whenever he felt the time was right. The label, however, insisted that a slow and measured timetable was the best way to operate in the music market. In response, Prince disavowed his own name in 1993, taking on the “Love Symbol” for identification and generally becoming labeled as “The artist formerly known as Prince.” The following year he started writing the word “slave” on his face for performances — a bid to express how he felt about Warner Bros.
Determined to escape, he spent the next two years providing the label with everything his contract required, so that in 1996 he was able to move on – after issuing what was effectively a divorce notice – and release Emancipation via his own NPG Records. In the following years he continued to operate the way he felt best suited him, which involved a wide range of different record deals, attempts to dissuade other musicians and fans from using his music (at one point he began to sue 22 fans for Facebook posts) and a period of going through lawyers “like underwear.” But it seems that lacking ownership of his Warner material remained an issue for him. And so, 18 years later, he returned to collect what he believed he was due.
There was more behind the scenes than that, of course. The music industry was waiting for the results of a test case which was set to decide on whether musicians like Prince were entitled to take back material they’d recorded after 35 years — a period that matched his time with Warners. It’s likely that the deal was made in the interests of avoiding a high-profile court case that might have encouraged others to sue their labels too.
Observers believed Prince fans would also come out winners. Saying they were “in for a blitz,” NPR argued: “Frankly, it's about time. Prince's music hasn't necessarily gone anywhere, but … his are almost the only recordings in their league not to have been given at least a brush-up. … And make no mistake: The catalog can use it. Not because Dirty Mind and 1999 and Purple Rain and Sign 'o' the Times require further validation as masterpieces, but because for many younger listeners, a reissue given the push of a new release is generally the clearest path to attention in an increasingly cluttered and ahistorical array of listening options.”
Billboard observed that Prince’s new deal was a way of avoiding “a risky and costly legal battle” and speculated that the rights to his masters would revert “as each album becomes eligible for copyright termination” via the 35-year rule. The report continued: “The Warner Music Group decline to provide further comment on the details of the deal. But Warner Bros. Records chairman and CEO Cameron Strang said in a statement: ‘Everyone at Warner Bros Records is delighted to be working with Prince once again: he is one of the world's biggest stars and a truly unique talent. We are also very excited about the release of new and re-mastered music from one of his greatest masterpieces.’”
Speaking later in 2014, Prince told EW: “It’s just a business relationship, clean and transparent. And I got my stuff back.” He went on to criticize the notion of record labels in general, saying: “They’re outmoded. Why do they get to take your work and take a piece of that? What are they bringing to the table? I’m not mad. They’re not bad people. I’ve known some of them for more than half my life. But the system is old and it doesn’t work anymore. It’s the past.”
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