On Thursday 21st April 2016 the world learned of the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson, musician, songwriter, vocalist, actor and producer. Known simply as Prince and held in high regard in the music industry, he was a pioneer of the Minneapolis sound but more than that, he was a brand; a truly unique enigma who embraced many of the idiosyncrasies of today’s digital age before the rest of us even realised.
Colon, open bracket.
For the younger generations who never experienced records like ‘Sign O The Times’ or can’t remember their first viewing of 1984’s ‘Purple Rain’ Prince will be forever known as the man who changed his name into a symbol.
A rebellious and somewhat crazy move at the time in a world where mono-nyms were already in place; we had Cher and Madonna already. Prince upped the game, dropping his name completely in favour of an unpronounceable “love symbol”, a mashup of the male and female gender icons.
The media began referring to “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” and reports indicate that record sales declined although this may be due to the name change itself being an act of rebellion against the Warner Brothers record label, who Prince felt had trapped him in a “slave”-like contract.
In a statement in Rolling Stone magazine he said:
“It is an unpronounceable symbol whose meaning has not been identified. It’s all about thinking in new ways, tuning in 2 a new free-quency,”
In reality, he was still Prince. He always had been and always would be. Choosing to be identified by a singular symbol was a bold move in 1993 but now it’s a more common practise than you might think for the world’s leading brands.
Nike sportswear often no longer bears the wordmark. Starbucks initially dropped the word coffee from their branding before resorting to a pictogram only on their famous cups and all over the world you need only see the iconic golden arches to know there’s a McDonalds nearby. The brands, like Prince, are still known by their original names but in a visual world the symbol speaks a thousand words.
It’s a sign o’ the times.
Nothing Compares 2 Prince
Playing with words and symbols wasn’t just restricted to the artist’s own name. Decades before the mobile phone came into existence, Prince was known for taking his lyrics and ripping up the rulebook when it came to conforming to traditional language.
The many songs he wrote included ‘I Would Die 4U’, ‘Do U Lie?’ and the massive Sinead O’Connor hit ‘Nothing Compares 2U’. Ok, there may be a case for British rock band Slade being the first band to introduce us to the concept of what would eventually become text-speak but it was Prince who sold millions of records and brought it to a global audience.
While English language purists may have been wrongly horrified – Shakespeare, after all, was known for a love of slang and a plethora of newly invented words – Prince was as always visionary in his approach. There’s a case for his substitution of the ‘all seeing eye’ image in place of the pronoun ‘I’ maybe being the first suggestion of an emoji.
The New Marketer
Far from just being a talented songwriter, fantastic musician and equal parts marketing dream and nightmare, Prince was a genuine innovator in the music business world.
Long before the Jay-Zs, Kanye Wests, Spotify and ubiquitous music consumption we now take for granted, Prince was a pioneer in the field.
With the end of his Warner Brothers’ contract in 2000, Prince was free to make the music he wanted and distribute it as he saw fit. Self-releasing on his own label, he famously gave away free albums to concert goers, distributed the 2007 record ‘Planet Earth’ as a covermount on a UK Sunday newspaper and even won a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for “visionary use of the Internet to distribute music” in 2006.
Throughout his career, many of Prince’s decisions defied logic to many, flew in the face of traditional marketing techniques but he was truly revolutionary. One of the first acts to make his music available on-line, one of many artists signed to ‘Tidal’ in 2015 and having the influence over the business world to the extent that HMV stocked the Mail on Sunday in 2007 as it was the only way they could make the record available to their customers.
For a man short in stature he made giant leaps in music and in the dangerous, crazy, brave entrepreneurial world of digital marketing. His influence will be missed in areas reaching far beyond the pop music world.
As news of the purple one’s death broke, MTV even resorted to playing music videos again. Always a game-changer.