What Prince's Death Can Teach You About Protecting Your Career

11th June 2016 No comments


Following Prince’s April 21 death reports began to surface that the singer left no will stating what was to become of his estate. This seemed an impossibility for so many reasons. Prince was one of the most business-oriented artists in the history of the music industry. He was a forefather of the DIY ethos so many indie artists have embraced because he would not relinquish control of his career, his catalog, or his life’s work.  He wrote all of his material, played almost all of the instruments on recordings, produced his own albums, and in later years, handled his own distribution. He publicly took his label to task over their treatment of him as well as protesting the label:artist system as a whole and began to appear publicly with the word “SLAVE” scrawled across his cheek to further illustrate his displeasure.  While Prince always embraced new technology, he vehemently disagreed with music being free and was against freemium steaming, free downloads, and content being made available on YouTube.  Prior to his death, it was an impossibility to find a Prince track or video on YouTube. Clicking on any given track would lead to either a user photo with muted audio or one of YouTube’s photos.

When Prince died people were posting content so quickly it was impossible for anyone to keep up with pulling those videos. Now it seems no one cares. The singer who valued his work so much that he fought his whole life for his and other artist’s rights. The businessman who guarded his catalog so carefully that he made it an impossibility for fans to watch him on YouTube, even as it became the replacement for MTV. How is it possible that this man never had a will drawn up? It seems antithetical to everything we know of Prince as an artist and businessman. In the short time since his passing, the music which he spent his life protecting has lost all control. YouTube is full of Prince music and videos (no muted audio) and who knows how long a battle over his estate will go on. More importantly, who knows what will become of his catalog once someone is in charge of it. Following Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s 2012’s death, details of his will became available. Yauch was quite clear about what he didn’t want to become of his work after his death and his will prohibits the use of his music in advertisements. This simple document allowed Yauch to maintain control of his music and legacy and be assured his music wouldn’t be used after his death for anything he wouldn’t have approved of over the course of his life. Prince made no such preparations and if the wrong person is placed in charge of his estate it’s possible we’ll hear Prince music accompany hamburger ads, be used as background music to sell cars, be made available on freemium streaming services, or any number of things the singer spent his life protesting.

If you’re going to run your career as a business, which every artist should be doing, it’s imperative that you’re thorough. Do you have a will that states what is to become of your catalog? Do your bandmates and managers know your wishes regarding commercial use of your music? How specific were you about what “commercial” means? Does this include everything? Just advertisements? Film and television? If you want to control your music and image whilst on this Earth, which you absolutely should, it’s equally important you take necessary measures to control your music after you’ve passed on. If Prince, a performer with one of the greatest business minds in the history of entertainment, could make such a grave oversight, I suspect many other artists haven’t given this much thought. Be sure to get your affairs in order legally so you can protect the music you work so hard on.

For more information on Prince’s handling of his business and his contributions to the indie spirit check out this wonderful podcast from Wharton.

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