by Yvette Carnell
One summer evening in August of 2015, a group of journalists gathered at Paisley Park Studios to meet with a reticent musician who’d somehow single-handedly transformed himself into the record industry’s most persistent adversary.
In 2014 Prince won a hard-fought battle against Warner Bros. to gain control over his music catalogue and his name. Now, in a joint venture with Jay-Z’s Tidal a year later, Prince was sharing with reporters his plan for using what he’d learned in combat with Warner Bros. to advantage other artists in their dealings with record companies.
When asked how he planned to garner attention for his new project, Prince replied with a smile, “that’s why you’re here.”
That Prince had invited reporters into his private mansion in 2015 to announce a renewal of conflict between himself and the record industry was a news-making event. Mainstream media, however, buried the ground-breaking meeting in other headlines.
The same press that gave only a cursory nod to Prince’s 2015 meeting is now falling all over itself to report salacious gossip about the details surrounding the musical icon’s mysterious death. Anonymous sources are being used to depict Prince as a drug addled, AIDS infected, pill-popping degenerate.
The Daily Mail even went so far as to interview Prince’s alleged drug dealer, somehow surmising that a musical legend who seemed more comfortable on the stage than anywhere else, suffered from stage fright. Another report claimed that Prince hadn’t slept for days at the time of his death. Prince’s brother-in law, who did not live with the singer, was the source for that report.
After Prince’s death, his estranged sister, a former crack addict and prostitute, rushed to cremate the singer without conducting an independent autopsy or opting instead for a burial. (Reports indicating that Jehovah’s Witnesses require cremation after a follower’s death were untrue.)
What we do know about Prince paints a picture in stark contrast to what is currently being presented by mainstream media. As he expressed to reporters during that fateful meeting at Paisley Park, his next battle wasn’t just about artistic freedom. It was about financial freedom–for all artists. Prince was demanding ownership, and with billions of dollars at stake, this was a much more perilous adventure.
“Once we have our own resources, we can provide what we need for ourselves,” Prince said during the meeting, according to NPR. “Jay Z spent $100 million of his own money to build his own service. We have to show support for artists who are trying to own things for themselves.”
Prince had been David to the music industry’s Goliath in several well publicized skirmishes. He famously refused to sign contracts with record companies where he did not have creative control and in 1997 became the first artist to sell records directly over the internet.
The only thing standing in the way of Prince turning his passion for ownership into a movement was the refusal of other artists to follow suit.
“He was forever trying to persuade other artists to do the same,” says Prince’s former attorney, Gary Stiffelman, according to Billboard. “This truly was a cause, not just ‘I want to make more money.’ ”
Although Prince had secured his own freedom as an artist, he’d previously lacked a mechanism with which to institutionalize his model for the entire industry. It’s one thing to accuse the music industry of turning artists into slaves, as Prince did during that August meeting, but another thing altogether to devise a plan that promises to get those artists off the plantation. That’s where Jay-Z’s Tidal came in.
Tidal was Prince’s instrument for allowing artists to receive revenue untouched by their record label. “I would tell any young artist … don’t sign” record deals, Prince said.
In the current figuration, artists are beholden to record companies for revenue, but Prince prefigured Tidal as a way for artists to control their revenue from streaming. He’d already removed his own music from streaming services that only pay artists a pittance.
Prince had a plan. Part of that plan included giving money to Trayvon Martin’s family through Rev. Al Sharpton. Another part of that plan was donating money to black activists through Van Jones. But Prince also had a plan to free artists from the grip of their record labels, a constricting force that he knew all too well. Why would a man with a plan for everything die without a plan for what happens to his fortune after he’s gone?
Is it possible that Prince neglected to sign a will and spent his last days self-medicating? It’s not only possible, it’s likely that this was the case. Chronic pain can convert even the strongest willed people into addicts.
It is just as true, however, that whole industries in this country are built on black failure. The mass incarceration complex in this country doesn’t provide lucrative contracts for builders or provide jobs unless black men fail. The payday loan industry doesn’t exist unless black people are financially strapped. Our failure is the gasoline on which this country runs. Anyone strategically plotting a way forward where blacks are not on the bottom of the economic totem pole is not only risking his art, but his life.
One of two things happened; either Prince died without a will or someone is withholding it. We may never know. It is curious, however, that a man who understood the power of contracts and their skillful execution left the bulk of his estate to former drug addicted sister to whom he was never close.