Categories
For You, 1978

For You

Prince’s contract with Warner Bros. stipulated that he deliver his first album to the label within six months. But before he could begin work, there were a few issues that needed to be addressed: specifically, the executives at W.B. remained wary of giving full production responsibilities to an unproven teenager from Minnesota. “Warners basically said, ‘We know he’s talented, we know he can play the instruments, we know he can write songs, but does he have record sense?’ Those are distinct areas,” Prince’s then-manager Owen Husney told biographer Per Nilsen. “The question was, ‘Does he have the ability to make a record that will sell?’” (Nilsen 1999 35)

Warner wasn’t sure, so they did what any record label would do in their situation: they hedged their bets. In an odd echo of Columbia’s earlier, failed strategy, W.B. chairman Mo Ostin tried to convince Prince to work with an experienced star producer: Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. But not even the superior White brother could dissuade the 19-year-old phenom from his ambitions. Prince, according to Husney, wrote a lengthy note laying out the reasons why White wasn’t a good fit for his debut: “He had analyzed [Earth, Wind & Fire’s] music and felt it wasn’t going anywhere in the eighties… He didn’t want that. He felt it was going to pigeonhole him. So I called back Mo and I said our decision was still ‘no.’ We wanted to be self-produced” (Nilsen 1999 35).

In the end, Husney and Ostin settled on a compromise–once again, following the earlier negotiations with CBS almost to the letter. Warner flew Prince back out to Los Angeles, under the pretext of offering him some free studio time. As he worked, however, the label sent producers and executives to surreptitiously observe his process: including head of A&R Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman (best known at the time for his work with Randy Newman), Gary Katz (producer of Steely Dan), and Ted Templeman (the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, et. al.). “He thought some of these people were janitors,” Husney claimed to Nilsen. “They were all walking in and out of there. Prince had no idea who the heck it was” (Nilsen 1999 35). But the ruse worked, and in the artist’s favor: Waronker and Templeman in particular were impressed, and agreed that Prince should be allowed to self-produce. “You could not only tell there was talent but there was a vision,” Waronker later recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He went out and played guitar, then overdubbed drums. By the time the drum part was recorded, it was clear. We didn’t want to insult him by making him go through the whole process, but he wanted to finish” (Star Tribune 2004). With Warner Bros. sufficiently convinced, Prince became the youngest producer in the label’s history.

Categories
Ephemera, 1977-1978

We Can Work It Out

In the three-sided bidding war that ignited over Prince in Los Angeles, Warner Bros. held the edge. As noted last time, Prince’s manager Owen Husney had a prior association with Russ Thyret, at that time the label’s Vice President and Director of Promotion. Husney told biographer Dave Hill that he considered Thyret “a friend and a man of heart” (Hill 41). “While everybody was wining, dining, giving us lunches, and promising us homes in Beverly Hills, Russ was the man who took us back to his house, sat on the floor, and talked music with us,” he later elaborated to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “And in the back of my mind I was always going toward Warner Bros., because of Russ” (Nilsen 1999 33).

Sure enough, it was with Russ, and Warner, that Prince ultimately signed on June 25, 1977. Personal connections aside, the decision made sense. Warner had a reputation in the industry as an artist-friendly label: its chief executive, Mo Ostin, encouraged a culture of receptiveness to artists’ creative development that would have been appealing to Prince and his management, who insisted on not only a long-term deal, but also the ability for Prince to produce his own records. On the latter point, as we’ll discuss next week, Ostin would need a little convincing; but he was willing to invest a considerable amount of time and money in Prince, and that was most important. “Columbia would only give him a two-LP deal, so we decided that we would give him a three-LP deal because we believe[d] in him so strongly,” Ostin recalled to Billboard earlier this year (Aswad 2016).

The actual dollar amount of the contract Prince signed with W.B. has been disputed, and indeed exaggerated: in his interview with Hill, for example, Husney called it “a multi-million dollar deal,” with an initial sum “well into six figures” (Hill 41). The truth, as Nilsen reported it, was quite a bit more modest: an $80,000 advance, with an additional $225,000 if Prince delivered three albums within 27 months. There was also a second option for renewal, entitling the artist to a quarter million for another two albums, delivered within one year. The promised recording budget for the initial, two-year period was $180,000: $60,000 per album. It was, according to Warner Bros. representatives, the biggest recording contract to date for a solo artist–with the exception, randomly, of Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter (Nilsen 2004 18).