Prince, a pioneering musician and creative, died today at 57. This game-changing artist merged his special take on funk and rock into 39 albums, creating classics such as Purple Rain and Little Red Corvette. His sly, eye-brow-raising music got attention from the start, winning 7 Grammys and inspiring everyone from pop stars like Justin Timberlake to alternative artists like Beck and The Weeknd.
He was often as known for his unconventional behavior as his music. He famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and claimed angels cured his childhood epilepsy. These stories overshadowed his drive and his pioneering moves to protect his rights to his music, especially during a new digital age.
His career spanned more than 35 years and showed the power of a real musician and true creative. Here are a few lessons anyone can learn from the example Prince set.
He thought big. Prince was signed at just 18 to a record deal in 1977. That deal came with grit and all-or-nothing determination. As he recalled in this Rolling Stone article, "When I was 16, I was completely broke and needed to go get a job and I got the Yellow Pages out and I couldn't find one thing that I wanted to do," he said. "So I decided I was going to push as hard as I could to be a musician and went at it."
He grew with his audience. His nearly 40 decade-career was hailed by some for drawing one of the most racially diverse audiences in music. Prince explained in an interview with Tavis Smiley that “As I was coming into my own persona and understanding of who I was, I never talked down to my audience. And when you don’t talk down to your audience, then they can grow with you.”
He was a real artist. Prince wrote hundreds of songs for himself and others. Manic Monday? By Prince. Nothing Compares 2 U? Prince. He was so prolific, when a contract ended with Warner Brothers, he released 10 albums worth of material. Last year, he recorded a protest song inspired by the death of Freddie May in which he played all the instruments. Nearly anything inspired him to create. As he said at the time, "With everything going on there this week, I had a lot I needed to get out."
He fought for his work. He brought his disputes with record execs public, writing “slave” on his face and even changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol when one record company said it owned his name. He was also among the first big artists to tangle with digital titans YouTube and Ebay to protect unauthorized use of his work. At the time, a statement on his behalf read: "YouTube ... are clearly able (to) filter porn and pedophile material but appear to choose not to filter out the unauthorized music and film content which is core to their business success.”
He did the unexpected. He once approached in-person a woman friends warned was a stalker who’d outside his Paisley Park record studio. As he explained in a New Yorker interview: ‘Hey, all my friends in there say you’re a stalker. And that I should call the police. But I don’t want to do that, so why don’t you tell me what you want to happen. Why are you here? How do you want this to end?’ And she didn’t really have an answer for that. In the end, all she wanted was to be seen, for me to look at her. And she left and didn’t come back.”
He experimented. In 2004, Prince sold more than 600,000 copies of his Musicology album thanks to a non-traditional sales move. Those who bought tickets to his sold-out arena shows received a copy of the album. The move drove sales and inspired Billboard to tweak its album tallying policy. Three years later he gave away copies of his album Planet Earth to subscribers of The Daily Mail moving 3 million copies. Prince’s take? “It’s direct marketing.” The move was closely watched by an embattled music industry more fully aware of how artists could cut them out of the music sales equation.
He wasn’t a slave to his fanbase. When his legal team demanded certain Prince images be removed from fan websites, fans united against him. Prince responded with a special diss track about those fans, even threatening to knock them out. “I don’t care so much what people say about me,” he explained later in a rare television interview. “It’s usually a reflection of who they are.” The approach helped set him apart. And when it came to the fans he’d dissed -- it only made them love him more.
He understood persona. Yes, he wore velvet. But he was also a man from Minneapolis who wore white socks with sandals and whose first tweet was of his dinner. Prince didn’t hide that he was human -- but knew how to craft something more intriguing. As he explained in an interview, “Sexiness is in the mind. When you lose that, it’s just old skin.”
He could write. We could talk about rendering characters in just a few lines, like the troublemaking woman from Raspberry Beret who “walks in through the out door.” But often his music did more, even as it was written to inspire and even challenge. It made us move. Who is strong enough to sit still through Let’s Go Crazy, a whose lyrics are actually a maudlin reflection on the pointlessness of life? Prince can acknowledge fate's darkest reality and still get you to dance. “If the elevator tries 2 bring u down / Punch a higher floor.” Prince knew how to get a crowd to rally.