A slave to the music

The release of Prince’s back catalogue is thrilling for fans, but also a reminder that art is commodity – even, and especially, in death.

Prince fans were elated by the recent announcement that 23 of his albums recorded between 1995 and 2010 are now commercially available. Many of these albums were fan club-only releases, one-off deals with small independent labels, or giveaways at various large newspaper groups. They have not been for sale digitally, so many fans will be hearing most of these songs for the first time.

The digital availability of these albums is not the only news – a new compilation and a previously unreleased album have recently dropped, too. Anthology: 1995 to 2010 boasts 37 songs carefully selected from the 23 re-released albums. The iTunes write up for the compilation notes that “from a fan’s perspective, the thoughtful culling of his output is a godsend”. 

Prince appears solo on his Yamaha acoustic piano in his nine-song album, Piano and Microphone 1983, taped at his Kiowa Trail home studio. It features two previously unreleased songs, Cold Coffee & Cocaine and Why the Butterflies, as well as an embryonic version of Purple Rain and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. Critics describe the recording as a 35-minute window into the artist’s creative process. 

Dispute with Warner Brothers

The haphazard release schedule, which resulted in so many of his albums only becoming available now, came about because of Prince’s dispute with his record label, Warner Brothers.

Eventually the relationship between Prince and his label became so acrimonious that the musician started writing the word “slave” on his face in public, especially during meetings with Warner Brothers. Now, Sony has secured the rights to all Prince’s material via his estate.

In his book Prince, fan and critic Matt Thorne recalls how the artist released a statement explaining that Warner Brothers had commodified his name, and that the only solution was to adopt an unpronounceable symbol as a moniker. This came just two months after he announced to the media that he was retiring from studio recording. 

To meet his contractual obligations to Warner Brothers, Prince began releasing rejigged albums from his vault of unreleased recordings. Between 1994 and 1996, he released five albums with the label. Thorne argues that the work from these years was created and sequenced from a place of anger and resentment, describing Prince’s album Chaos and Disorder as a “punk-rock equivalent to Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear”.

“If Prince had allowed Warner Brothers to go through the vault and select songs themselves rather than merely take what they were given, they could have compiled the best Prince release to date,” Thorne argues.

Stellar songs

Many critics felt the artist’s releases between 2000 and 2010 were patchy at best, with 2004’s Musicology and 2006’s 3121 receiving the most attention. But Anthology: 1995 to 2010 stacks up highlights from these records, with songs such as Call My Name and Black Sweatmaking it clear that although Prince might not have been delivering stellar albums, he could still create stellar songs.

Many critics felt the artist’s releases between 2000 and 2010 were patchy at best

Other highlights include Future Soul Song, a slow jam from the album 20Ten. When Eye Lay My Hands On U offers all the dread and tension of late 90s-era Radiohead layered beneath one of Prince’s booty-call anthems, while Northside plays on classic funk. 

Prince’s 2004 albums, The Chocolate Invasion and The Slaughterhouse, both released as download-only albums through his website, offer up two more gems. Lotusflow3r  came out in 2009 through his own label, NPG Records, and offers two highlights: the raunchy, rock-infused Dreamer, and the greasy funk tune Ol’ Skool Company.

On the instrumental album Xpectation: New Directions in Music, the highlight is Xpedition , an eight minute-plus fusion jazz number in which Prince channels his inner Miles Davis. The highlight from the acoustic album Truth, released in 1998, is 3rd Eye, another excellent funk number.

It’s all too good. It’s all too much.

Some Prince fans are torn, though. One the one hand fans are luxuriating in all this purple abundance. On the other, this massive output could have happened only after Prince’s death and, as such, represents a victory for the mainstream music industry. Was Prince’s struggle against exploitation all for naught in the end? Sony certainly looks set to earn a pretty packet over the next few decades. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. 

The release of Prince’s back catalog says to young songwriters struggling with the limits their record labels place on their creativity: Don’t fight – we’ll win in the end. In the music industry, it seems, you’re a slave in life and in death.

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