Prince’s music returns to the marketplace: “Slave Trade: How Prince Re-Made the Music Business” explains why it left

By on February 15, 2017

On February 9, 2017, nearly ten months after the sudden and still-shocking death of the multi-disciplined artist Prince, welcome news emerged about an agreement with the Universal Music Group to re-release recordings he made after 1995, as well as unreleased material from his Paisley Park recording vault. As depicted in the 2014 documentary Slave Trade: How Prince Re-Made the Music Business, currently streaming on Night Flight Plus, the administration of that body of work was of deep importance to him, often causing rifts with his friends, mentors, and even his fans.

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From the first public rumblings of his dissatisfaction with what had appeared to be a huge contract renewal with Warner Bros. records, to the seemingly constant lawsuits and takedown orders issued by his representatives that followed to the end of his life, Prince had a firm desire to control all aspects of how his art reached the public.

The big takeaways of the history are well-known. After signing what looked like a lucrative $100 million renewal with Warner Bros. Records, Prince quickly found that the terms meant diminished residuals for his work, onerous dictates on what music he could release and how frequently he could do so, and effectively giving up all rights to the finished music to the company. Public bickering and multiple album delays resulted in his departure from the label in 1996.

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After a bitter war of words, during which the star scrawled Slave across his cheek whenever he appeared in public and routinely dissed his label, the parties finally settled and Prince henceforth was free to take full control of his music and the way it was sold to consumers.

When Prince eschewed his name for the unpronounceable glyph he used until his original publishing contract expired, he would occasionally release albums through other majors (EMI, Arista), but he concentrated on selling directly on the web through his own NPG label and website, putting out the kind of stylistic experiments and high-volume packages he could not do at Warner Bros., and being able to earn a better return on the sales.

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Slave Trade: How Prince Re-Made the Music Business goes into deep, exhaustive detail about the prime instances of this struggle, talking to trusted insiders, collaborators, and scholars, revealing how he was most clairvoyant in visualizing how musicians could sell directly to listeners without corporate middlemen, then most intransigent when that technology itself clashed with his wishes.

For many, those clashes often got more attention than his new music. Such infamous events as a mother’s home movie being pulled from YouTube for having 29 seconds of a tinny radio playing “Let’s Go Crazy,” or when he sued twenty-two social media users $1 million each for posting links to alleged bootleg material, won him a “Raspberry Beret Lifetime Aggrievement Award” from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Undeterred, he and his legal reps went even further, closing his internet store and rendering all his exclusive releases unavailable, and continuing to yank not only reposts of previously-easy-to-see MTV videos, but even fan photographs, from the web.

Consequently, in the hours and days that followed his passing, devoted followers and the casually curious were pleasantly surprised to see the restraints lifted on streaming sites and social media, allowing people to view long-suppressed music videos, concert clips, and rare recordings.

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The amnesty was short-lived, though, and as Prince’s intestate assets and competing heirs were being sorted in court, his catalog returned to frustrating limited access, with many albums being out of print and fetching high collector prices, and streaming availability restricted to the high-quality but prohibitively expensive site Tidal.

Strategically timed to be announced before and after this past Sunday’s Grammy Awards ceremony were two press releases, from Universal Music and Warner Music respectively, that have instantly improved the situation for fans.

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Universal’s news announced their acquisition of publishing and merchandise rights to Prince’s post-’95 songs, and imminent reissue of his dormant NPG albums, covering his glyph-named recordings to the present, along with countless unreleased tracks.

While most reports have focused on the hit records in this package like Emancipation and Musicology, this also portends that many of the tantalizing but lesser-heard works like Exodus, New Power Soul, and The Rainbow Children will have a greater chance to find new listeners.

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Warner’s press release, in turn, declared immediate availability on all major streaming and download sites for their classic Prince material, as well as promising an expanded 33rd anniversary reissue of the Purple Rain soundtrack, two concert films, and two collections of unreleased material recorded during his tenure with the label.

Universal also teased that next year, “certain Prince albums released from 1979 to 1995″ would be forthcoming too, suggesting that Warner is using a limited window of opportunity to market their Prince holdings before they likely revert to their rival.

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So, as you start hitting your favorite music site or saving your money for the onslaught of reissues, we highly recommend watching Slave Trade. It will tell you more than you ever thought there was to know about Prince’s artistic and business instincts, and serves as a wise crash course for any aspiring musician or patron of the arts on how the music business changed, for better and for not-so-better.

You’ll also get a lot of still-currently-not-readily-viewable music videos and performance clips of Prince in action, reminding you of why, despite what seemed to be an often fractious relationship with the public, you could never dismiss or underestimate him.

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Watch Slave Trade: How Prince Re-Made the Music Business, along with other Prince documentaries — including Prince: Reign of the Prince of Ages, Prince: The Glory Years Unauthorized, and Prince: Up Close & Personal — right now on Night Flight Plus.

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About Marc Edward Heuck

Marc Edward Heuck is a writer and cultural historian best known as the Movie Geek from Comedy Central's "Beat the Geeks." He was an associate producer and researcher for Robert Rodriguez' "The Director's Chair" interview series on the El Rey network. He created the eclectic blog The Projector Has Been Drinking, and his screening series Cinema Tremens revived many rarely-exhibited films, featuring interviews with their creators and champions. He has recorded more than ten DVD commentary tracks, and has been a memorable guest on many podcasts. He cites discovering "Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains" on "Night Flight" as one of the significant milestones of his cultural evolution.