He burst on to the scene in the late seventies, seemingly a one man team, with an album where he claimed to have done everything – from writing and singing the songs to playing most of the instruments. Not too many were impressed with his brand of music which frankly did not fit any stereotype. He was too different for comfort. And supremely disruptive because he did things in a manner that just did not conform to the set order.
Yes, in many ways, Prince was the ultimate startup. He came seemingly from nowhere, and shook the established way of doing things in the music industry, whether it was in terms of his music, his record label contracts or his near-fanatical control over his music in an industry that was known for piracy. He was different. He did it his way. Right to the end, and notwithstanding the many times he was written off, he succeeded.
So what better tribute can we play to His Royal Purpleness than to pull ten lessons from his life that would serve every startup well. Here you go:
Yes, everyone likes to claim that they are different but it does not take too long for people to figure out who is the real thing and who is just a smart/mediocre/poor imitation. Prince from the very outset was out to be radically different – he was nothing like anything people had heard. So could not be compared with anyone. He started with a clear identity, rather than a ‘me too/just like that’ one.
…and stay different
Getting known for being different is a good start but the challenge is STAYING different. Too many people have got off to bright starts and then frittered them away by trying to appeal to the mainstream. Prince, however, wore his conspicuousness like a crown, continuing to churn out work that was starkly different and seemed to cater to no predefined target audience. He even ditched his own name for a while, adopting a symbol for his name and insisting he be called “the artist formerly known as Prince.” He was many things. He was never routine. As he himself sang quite famously:
Everybody wants 2 sell what’s already been sold
Everybody wants 2 tell what’s already been told
What’s the use of money if you ain’t gonna break the mould…
Work, work, work…
Yes, he did his share of outrageous things, including strutting around on stage in stillettos, but…one thing that Prince did more than anyone else was work. The man seldom seemed to stop making music, and ended up with more original albums than most artistes (Wikipedia puts the number at 39, which is an average of above an album a year – staggering by any standards). So while he did make news for some of his antics, he made news most for his work. And he kept working. People might not have always liked his music but they never doubted that he would try again.
Don’t care about reviews
If there was one thing that marked Prince out as special, it was his ability to continue on his own chosen path, irrespective of what the critics said. Even the most stinging of reviews did not knock the man off his stride or make him look for a more “mainstream/commercially conservative” solution. He continued to be eccentric and very eclectic. The critics did not always love him. And that did not bother him because well, he did not love critics, either.
Prince was following the path of constant movement well before Carl Pei and Co came out with the Never Settle line for OnePlus. The man hopped from genre to genre, mixing rap, rock, funk, soul, and sometimes even dipping his dainty toes into bubblegum pop – he refused to be classified by a particular class of music. In simple words, he just went ahead and did what he thought would sound good – he did not care whether it did not blend with his past recordings or what his listeners were accustomed to.
Many was the time when Prince was involved to ditch his brand of music in favour of a more “mainstream” sound. He refused almost every time. No one might have understood his standards, but then they were HIS standards – others were not supposed to understand them anyway. Recording companies complained that he was releasing too many albums. Frankly, dears, he did not give a damn. He even came on stage with the world ‘Slave’ written on his face to protest against the contract terms being imposed by recording companies. They still lined up for his signature.
Be Yourself… NEVER sell out
Whatever you may accuse him of – and he has been accused of everything from sex, drugs and rock and roll – no one ever accused Prince of being less than himself. Of course, no one was sure what he himself was, but the very unpredictability that marked him never left him. One never felt that he was doing anything for the money. He could have signed more lucrative deals, done more tours… put much much more in the bank than he did (and he had a fair lot), but somehow with Prince it was always about being himself and his music. Which is why his followers had so much faith in him – they knew he would not sell out.
Let your work be your brand
The man changed his name a few times, worked with at least two different sets of artistes (The Revolution and the New Power Generation), acted in films… but right through it all, the one thing that always defined him was his work, i.e., his music. Prince is one of the few artistes in the world who managed to let his work rather than his personality (and it was a supremely eccentric one) be his representative. Yes, there was an undoubted mystique around him, but it never got to the stage where interest in him overshadowed interest in his music. The cult of personality seldom is a double-edged sword for startups – it does get them attention initially, but then they run the risk of being judged by their people rather than their products.
Talk to the media, don’t seek them out
He gave numerous interviews and did his share of conferences, but one thing that marked Prince out in terms of his media interactions was that more often than not, he controlled the messaging. The interactions and interviews were generally his initiatives and quite often had nothing to do with product promotions. The man was always in the news but never chased the media. He let his work speak and if people did not like it, he just went back and worked some more. He never used the media. And yet he spoke to them. Which is why so many looked at the man with affection in spite of his utter unpredictability.
Be a start up till you die
As per most critics, Prince “arrived” on the music scene with his second album, 1999. But if you looked at the man himself, it seemed as if he was always on a journey – trying new things, working out new concepts and a whole lot more. It would have been easy for him to just rest on his laurels, but he never really thought that he had arrived. Which is why he kept trying to do more. Right to the very end. He was too busy working to believe he was a legend. As he said in ‘Gold’:
“There’s a mountain
And it’s mighty high
You cannot see the top
Unless you fly
And there’s a molehill
Of proven ground
There ain’t nowhere to go
If you hang around…”
Prince never hung around. A startup to the very end.