Remembering Prince: How the Innovator Aced Both Art and Commerce

June 7 would have been the 60th birthday of Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson), who for 35 years was a huge influence in music and, equally important, in the way artists control their work. In 1981, Variety reviewed a marathon show at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, headlined by the Rolling Stones, and sighed that “The only negative response the entire day came for the brief opening set of Prince.” But he came roaring back a few months later. On Dec. 9, 1981, Variety caught his show at the Palladium in New York, and raved that “manufactured phenomenons are commonplace in pop music, while true sensations are rare. Prince, an audacious singer/guitarist from Minneapolis, has genuine star appeal.”

A few years later, he delivered his career-defining work, the album and movie “Purple Rain,” a surprise hit for distributor Warner Bros. In the July 2, 1984, review, Variety said the movie “captures the essence of the current music scene and the colorful Prince persona … director Albert Magnoli, making his feature bow, gets a solid, appealing performance from Prince, whose sensual, somewhat androgynous features are as riveting on film as they are on a concert stage.” Prince earned an Oscar for original song score, and the album won two Grammys.

After many years, Prince took control of his recordings. He launched his Paisley Park label and eventually ended his contract with Warner Bros. Records, in a noisy split. As an indie, he took the radical approach of distributing his music directly to fans online.

He was prolific and was known for his protégés, parties and purpleness.

When he died April 21, 2016, at age 58, Variety’s Andrew Barker wrote “Prince’s direct musical influence on three decades of R&B, pop, hip-hop, dance and rock is almost too obvious to state, yet perhaps his most important modern day legacy is philosophical: the need to be an ever vigilant master of one’s domain, both artistically and financially.”

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