Just How Noble Was Prince’s ‘Exodus’?
Understatement alert: It must have been rather challenging to be on the Warner Bros. marketing team assigned to Prince in the mid-'90s.
Much has been written about the Purple One’s battle to escape what he viewed as an unfair record label contract. While his overall goals of being able to completely own his music and decide when and how it was released were hard to argue with, could we all at least momentarily acknowledge it’s possible he could have handled the departure from his longtime label better?
In September of 1992, fresh off the success of Diamonds and Pearls, his biggest hit album in years, Prince signed what was trumpeted as “the largest recording and music publishing contract in history.” The agreement reportedly guaranteed him $10 million dollar advances for his next six albums. The future seemed bright.
Less than six months later, an angry Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and began waging a multi-faceted war on the label. Over the coming years he made numerous public appearances with the word "Slave" on his face, criticized the label and the music industry as a whole at every opportunity, and fought to accelerate his album release schedule in order to fulfill and escape the contract as quickly as possible.
"It felt like getting punched in the solar plexus," one former high-ranking Warner Bros. executive told Billboard. "Especially all the racial connotations. ... That just wasn't who we were."
So, how did things go wrong so fast between two partners who had accomplished so much together? The 1992 deal was the latest in a series of re-negotiated contracts Prince and Warner Bros. had agreed to since he first signed with the label at a teenager in 1978.
From the start, Prince commanded (and proved worthy of) special attention from any potential business partner. When he refused to sign his first deal with a label that wouldn't give him total creative control – including the highly atypical right for an unproven artist still in his teens to produce his own albums – Warner Bros. offered him a test of free studio time that was secretly monitored by famous producers and A&R executives such as Ted Templeman and Lenny Waronker. Their glowing reports on his studio skills convinced the label to offer the youngster a then-unheard of three-album guarantee.
They were of course, rewarded many times over as Prince's fame grew over the next decade – at first in fits and starts with early hits such as "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and critically acclaimed taboo-busting albums such as Dirty Mind, and then much more explosively with blockbuster albums such as 1999 and Purple Rain.
Soon after, Prince's increasingly idiosyncratic creative visions began presenting what you could call either challenges or opportunities to the marketing team at Warner Bros. That started with his Purple Rain follow-up album, Around the World in a Day, a complete and willful rejection of the sound and formula that had conquered the world just months earlier.
Check out the following series of events, which you'll note all take place in less than 18 months:
November 1986: In the wake of declining (though still impressive) sales for his two most recent albums, Warner Bros. feels compelled to push back against Prince's ambitious plans for a triple-album of new music named Crystal Ball, convincing the artist to instead release a slightly pared-down project.
March 1987: The resulting double album Sign O' the Times hits stores, and is widely hailed as his creative masterpiece. Despite the album's commercial success, he declines to support it with a North American tour.
December 1987: After already relenting against their better judgement to let Prince release yet another record – the darkly themed, dance-oriented "Black Album" – while they were still promoting Sign O' the Times, Warner Bros. receives a very surprising phone call. Prince had undergone a sudden and dramatic change of heart and insisted on not only cancelling the impending release, but destroying all copies of the album altogether.
"We told him we had spent a lot of money getting this thing ready for market," label executive Mo Ostin explained, "and he said, 'Look, I want you to take all those albums and destroy them.'" It seems both sides were able to reach healthy compromises at that time, as Prince agreed to pay for the manufacturing costs himself.
May 1988: Less than five months later, Prince was back with another new album – and two more potential headaches. Not only did he insist that all nine songs on the Lovesexy compact disc get lumped together as one single track (meaning you couldn't skip directly to, say, "Alphabet Street"), the album cover featured Prince posed completely nude on a gigantic flower – which, it wasn't too difficult to notice, seemed to have the tip of a human penis where its stigma should be.
Even after Wal-Mart and K-Mart refused to stock the album because of that risque art, Warner Bros. remained committed to supporting Prince's creative vision. "We may lose some sales here and there, but we've decided this will be the only cover. We aren't going to do another version," label vice president Bob Merlis declared. "If that were Cher posing on the cover, people would say, 'Wow! Isn't she a riot!' and that would be the end of it."
It should also be noted that Prince's impulsiveness and ability to write and record at a breathtaking pace could also provide sudden benefits for the label, as when he was inspired to quickly whip up the double-platinum soundtrack to 1989's Batman.
Fast-forward to 1993, and the start of the big trouble between Prince and Warner Bros. Even after the signing of the massive new contract, two large points of contention soon emerged: Prince wanted to release his albums at a pace the label felt was too fast to allow them to maximize the profits from each title – something that became even more necessary in their eyes given the increased advances and royalty payments included in the new deal.
More importantly, he wanted to own his master recordings – the actual physical tapes of his albums, and the rights to use the music contained on them – as he saw fit. The fact that the label would still control those rights even after recouping their expenses was "completely abhorrent to him," Owen Husney, Prince's first manager, told Billboard.
However, according to Warner Bros., Prince was unwilling to enter serious negotiations in order to obtain the rights which he willfully signed away years earlier. "We'll always talk to somebody," Merlis told AOL News in 1999. "[But] it's extremely unlikely that we will ever give an artist, with no compensation, original works that were sold to us under a valid contract.''
The resulting battle of wills played out over the next three years in another dizzying series of public relations headaches:
July 1993: Prince announces his name change. He publicly insisted the move was made for creative reasons: "It's fun to draw a line in the sand and say, 'Things change here,'" he told Vibe magazine (via Prince.org) in 1994. More than two decades later, however, Prince's former lawyer Londell McMillan told 20/20 that it was primarily an attempt to get free. "In Prince's mind, by changing his name to a symbol, he thought he could rescind and void the contract," McMillan explained. "Because he was no longer a signatory under the name Prince Rogers Nelson. We now know that was not the case."
February 1994: Warner Bros. grants Prince the right to release the single "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" through an independent distributor. Imagine their delight when the song promptly topped the charts all over the world. To further twist the knife, after being blocked from including more than one song on the new release, Prince retaliates by recording many radically different versions of the same track for the accompanying Beautiful Experience EP.
July 1994: NPG Records releases 1-800-New-Funk, a collection of songs from artists on Prince's Paisley Park and NPG labels. Nearly every track features him as a composer and/or performer, including the highly publicized lead single "Love Sign," a duet with Nona Gaye.
August 1994: Warner Bros. releases a new Prince album entitled Come, which he openly derides as "old" music and a "contractual obligation." The cover art features him solemnly standing in front of a cemetery and lists both his real birth date (1958) and a self-imposed death date of 1993. He refuses to allow "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" to be included on the album.
November 1994: In an apparent effort to speed up his release from Warner Bros., Prince consents to an official release of the infamous "Black Album." However, his publicist insists that the artist is still "spiritually against" the release of this music.
March 1995: The New Power Generation releases the Exodus album, which just so happens to feature a masked yet oddly-familiar looking background vocalist named "Tora Tora" who takes center stage for two of the album's best songs. That includes the epic title track, perhaps Prince's clearest ever love letter to George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic, with a Mothership Connection-worthy horn section and high whistling synths straight out of Dr. Dre's The Chronic.
The lyrics also offer a stern warning to those who are blocking our hero's path to freedom: "U that have scorned and held back the inevitable / Must now come 2 grips with the truth / All that is good in the eyes of heaven / Will rebuke your powder monkey ways / And let that same heaven have mercy / When the wrath of the sun knocks upon your gate."
September 1995: Warner Bros. releases the first album under the Artist Formerly Known as Prince's new symbol-based name. Clearly more proud of the bolder, fresher music on The Gold Experience, the artist works hard to promote the album – but he also keeps drawing attention to his legal predicament. For instance, Prince concluded his performance of "Dolphin," a surprisingly violent plea for freedom, on The Late Show With David Letterman by faking his own death.
March 1996: A brief respite arrives with the soundtrack to the new Spike Lee movie Girl 6, featuring new and previously released music from Prince and various associated artists. As a favor to the director, the artist allows his former name to be used on the collection, prompting Lee to thank him in the liner notes for this "great sacrifice."
July 1996: Originally "intended for private use only," the Chaos and Disorder album is released, with liner notes insisting this will be "the last original material recorded by [the artist] for Warner Brothers." The record's art features a very realistic-looking heart abandoned in a toilet, and the album concludes with a bitter breakup song entitled "Had U," which can pretty easily be interpreted as a curt farewell to his former label. (Warner Bros. was also allowed to issue one more collection of previously unreleased material, The Vault... Old Friends 4 Sale, in 1999.)
Four months after the release of Chaos and Disorder, Prince celebrated his freedom with a joyous triple-album entitled Emancipation. He spent the rest of his career either exploring new ways to sell music directly to his fans (such as the online NPG Music Club, and the massive 1998 five-CD Crystal Ball / The Truth / Kamasutra set) or working with major labels under short-term licensing deals that allowed him to maintain ownership of his masters – and complete creative freedom.
That included a 2014 return to Warner Bros. for the simultaneous release of two new albums, Plectrumelectrum and Art Official Age. This shocking reunion quickly made a lot more sense when it was revealed that Prince would be regaining ownership of his old master recordings as part of the deal. "Both Warner Bros Records and Eye (sic) are quite pleased with the results of the negotiations and look forward to a fruitful working relationship," Prince said at the time.
Sadly, those records would be among the last new music released in Prince's lifetime. His 2016 death came far too early, and before he got to enjoy full control over his life's work.
When interviewed shortly afterwards, Bob Merlis said he admired how Prince never allowed fame to change his principles. “He was the same person even though he had a bigger audience,” Merlis told Variety. “He was just always very driven." As for his thoughts on the mid-'90s battles, two decades later? "We tried to be open-minded. It was not in our interest to be confrontational with him.”
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