Three lessons in originality from Prince

Creativity is one thing, but persuading others to adopt your idea so that it becomes a valuable and sustainable innovation, and diffusing the idea into the mainstream matter just as much. Prince is one such person who achieved this.

What you will learn in this article:

  • How Prince changed the music industry for good
  • The importance of passion and purpose
  • Why you need to persist
  • How taking risks can benefit you

Changing the game regarding the relationship between artists and the music industry, Prince famously renamed himself as an unpronounceable symbol in order to escape from his restrictive contract with Warner Bros, so that he could continue to produce music at the unrelenting pace he wished to work at.

Admittedly he was far more creative and productive than the average record company could cope with, but clearly all people must have an equitable relationship with their stakeholders if both are to profit from that relationship. Some casual observers saw Prince’s logo change merely as a stylistic stunt or a piece of creative PR, yet what he did alongside the symbolic intervention fundamentally changed the “master and servant” relationship between artists and record companies. His principled actions have since influenced many others to do the same, such as Jay Z, Taylor Swift and David Byrne. In Prince’s own words: “Let the baker make the bread.”

In conversation with his wife Mayte Garcia, Sheila E and collaborators Andy Allo, Ida Nielsen, Marcus Anderson and George Clinton, I’ve learned some of the secrets of Prince’s success as an innovator and change maker in the music business. Here are three:

1. Always work from passion and purpose

Prince’s uncompromising obsession with putting passion and purpose before profit made him a stand out artist, sustaining his work over 40 years in a world where the half-life of artists is sometimes measured in months.

There are parallels for us in some of the very best businesses, embodied by the inspired enterprises of the 19th Century such as Cadbury and Pilkington. My own experience, working at the not for profit pharmaceutical company Wellcome gives testament this out, as someone who helped bring the world’s first HIV/AIDS treatment to market. The Wellcome Foundation lived and breathed the oft quoted remark from George Merck: “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear.”

2. Do the hard work and never give up

Prince was known to be a perfectionist and a workaholic. A shining example of the so-called 10,000 hours effect to hone his genius. Much of this attitude came from his childhood, which was characterised by family conflict and hardship, alongside his admiration for James Brown who was also a hard taskmaster. Prince’s wife Mayte Garcia told me:

“We all worked for him. Whilst on tour I was not doing enough activity to keep in shape and Prince docked my pay and whilst he was very encouraging, he also expected discipline and all the band knew that. It was a wakeup call. Any dancer or ballerina that wants to be great knows that it requires hours of blood, sweat and tears to be your best. Nobody sees it.”

In a parallel universe, I met with virtuoso percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie at The Bank of England recently. I detected several parallels with Prince in Glennie’s commitment to teaching the world to listen, having lost her hearing as a teenager and worked hard to overcome all the barriers that would conventionally be in the way of a deaf percussionist.

3. Take risks

Prince is also a master of fusing musical genres and influences outside his core style to innovate. This enables him to still exert a major influence on artists of the 21st Century, such as Lady Gaga, Beyonce and many others.  In business, the ability to take risks and cross mental boundaries is the parallel skill set, exemplified by companies such as 3M and IBM.

Here’s Prince protégé Andy Allo talking about what she learned from a master change maker, who always asked us to “expect the unexpected”: 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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