Why Prince Changed His Name to an Unpronounceable Symbol 30 Years Ago, and What Happened Next

The music world has seen countless reinventions, rehabilitations, transformations and image overhauls, but there’s never been anything quite like Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol on his 35th birthday, 30 years ago today.

His motivation for doing so was never clearly stated, although many assumed it was a ploy to get out of his contract with his longtime label, Warner Bros. Records. He announced the decision in a statement that read, “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.” Since, obviously, the symbol did not exist on a computer keyboard, Warner Bros. sent floppy discs to media outlets containing a digital rendition of the image, although most gradually landed on referring to him as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Television outlets were also provided with a brief video featuring the symbol, punctuated with an appropriately iconic-sounding digital clank, similar to the ones film companies used when their logos appeared in film credits.

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The symbol, originally a combination of the common gender symbols for male and female, previously had appeared in slightly different form in the artwork of several Prince albums, first on “1999” and later on the sleeves of “Purple Rain,” “Graffiti Bridge,” on tour laminates and the like. However, because that symbol could not be copyrighted, Prince hired Minneapolis design studio HDMG to alter it, adding a horn-like element. He copyrighted that version and first used it as the unpronounceable title of his otherwise title-less 1992 album, commonly referred to as “Love Symbol.”

Courtesy Michael Pagnotta

Courtesy Michael Pagnotta

Prince had always been provocative, perplexing and often strange artist, and frequently used symbols (such as an eye for “I”) or numbers (such as 4 for “for”) in his album artwork. But this was a new peak. Was it a joke, a trick, a stunt to get him out of his label contract — which had just been renewed in a purportedly “$100 million deal” — or had he finally lost it? There was no simple answer, and it’s hard not to imagine the ensuing bemusement, amusement and chatter were all a part of his plan, such as it was. Prince never really offered a conventional explanation.

“Very simply, my spirit directed me to do it,” he told MTV News’ Kurt Loder in 1999. “And once I did it, a lot of things started changing in my life. People can say something about Prince, and it used to bother me. Once I changed my name, it had no effect on me.”

He was slightly more expansive to Larry King that year. “I had to search deep within my heart and spirit, and I wanted to make a change and move to a new plateau in my life,” he said. “And one of the ways in which I did that was to change my name. It sort of divorced me from the past and all the hangups that go along with it. [He and Warner Bros.] had some issues that were basically about ownership of the music and how often I was supposed to record and things like that. We got along otherwise.”

Indeed, while Prince was one of the most successful acts on one of the most artist-friendly record companies in industry history, Warner Bros. was not about to redress his two main issues — that he couldn’t release music as often as he wanted, and the fact that the company, and not he, owned the rights to his recordings — especially when he’d just signed a lucrative new contract. His frustration with the situation grew increasingly contentious until he began painting the word “Slave” on his face and ultimately left the company when his contract was completed in 1996. (He actually signed a new, two-album deal with the label nearly 20 years later, but that’s a different story.)

Variety spoke with Michael Pagnotta, Prince’s independent publicist at the time, and Jeff Gold, Warner Bros. Records senior VP of creative services and later the label’s general manager.

GOLD: I got to Warner Bros. in 1990, around the time the “Graffiti Bridge” album and film came out, and they stiffed. So [Warner chiefs Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker] had a heart to heart with Prince, and basically said, “Listen, you’re in a precarious point in your career and you can’t afford another stiff. Work with us and we’ll help you.” He agreed, and they and [top execs] Michael Ostin and Benny Medina were basically A&R-ing his next album. After a while, they were sounding optimistic — that album was “Diamonds and Pearls.”

Prince sent in the album cover that he wanted, and it was basically a square, tight shot of his face where he’s doing a reverse peace sign and sticking his tongue between the two fingers [a universally recognized symbol for a certain sex act].

I looked at this thing — I’d never met him but I’m a huge fan — and thought, “This is ridiculous.” So I told Lenny and he said, “Go have a meeting with Prince and tell him.” He set up the meeting, I went to Benny’s office, which was like a cave with rounded walls and no windows and two couches facing his desk. Prince was sitting on one and I sat on the other one. Benny introduced me, “Prince, Jeff’s our new creative director, just came here from A&M Records. He thinks your album cover could be better.” And of the many, many times I saw Prince, I never once saw him where he wasn’t ready to walk onstage — you know, full hair, makeup, stage clothes — and he was wearing a fuchsia see-through shirt with pink pinstripes, with these fuchsia sort-of ski pants with a loop around the bottom of his boots. And just as Benny has delivered Prince the bad news, Benny’s lawyer started pounding on the door, “I need to see you right away!” and he left! So it’s me facing Prince.

“So you don’t like my album cover? Hmm,” he says — just complete confrontation. “What do you think I should do, wear overalls like R.E.M.?” He literally says that. “No, come on, I think you can do better than that.” It’s just the worst meeting ever, and he isn’t giving an inch, and he knows exceptionally well how to use silence as pressure and how to push back. This goes on for about half an hour, and finally he goes, “Show me some covers you’ve done.”

So I go up to my office and get a stack of CDs that I’d designed at A&M. I hand this pile to him, and he’s making dismissive comments about one after the other. “This is shit… That’s ancient… You want me to look like this? You think this is so great?” He gets about three-quarters of the way through the pile and sees a hologram special package I did for Suzanne Vega, for which I won a Grammy. He stops and looks at it and goes, “This is really good. Why can’t I have a hologram?”

Long story short, we did the hologram shoot, and when I went with Benny to show him a glass plate sample of it, he was rehearsing his band. I showed it to him and he was really, really happy with it. He goes, “What are you doing right now?” “Going back to the office.” And he goes, “Why don’t you guys sit on that couch,” and he plays 45 minutes or an hour of his set, and we’re about 15 feet away from him, which was one of the great experiences of my life. Anyway, after that, I became one of the maybe five people he talked to at Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

PAGNOTTA: I started out as an agent, booking people like [‘60s activists] Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin on college lectures and things, so right out of college, I was very comfortable dealing with difficult clients. Later I was at Rogers and Cowan [public relations] for a while and a woman there named Jill Willis had been doing some publicity for Prince. He hired her at Paisley Park and later moved her up to be his co-manager — people were always coming and going there. I had started my own firm and she hired me to work a couple of their albums, [saxophonist] Eric Leeds and [singer] Ingrid Chavez — Ingrid got into a whole thing with Lenny Kravitz and Madonna because she’d co-written “Justify My Love” and originally wasn’t credited. I guess Prince must have liked the way I did with that situation, because Ingrid sort of looked like she came out on top. So I was given the Prince account, six months into my own business.

The first time I ever met him, I was flown to Paisley Park, and I remember he was onstage — he must have been rehearsing. He walks across the stage and somebody there says, “This is Michael Pagnotta, he’s your new publicist.” He literally puts out his hand, shakes mine and keeps walking. He didn’t turn his body, he didn’t look at me, he just kept walking. That was my first encounter — and pretty much every other encounter afterwards, he would, like, magically appear and magically disappear — I’m sure you’ve heard that. You’d be somewhere and he’d be there one second and then he’d be gone, like a fucking magic trick. And the way he communicated was like the Riddler from “Batman.” I was in my early 20s and fucking terrified the entire time I was working for him.

“Diamonds and Pearls” becomes a multiplatinum, global hit and puts Prince back on top. As is often the case in such situations, a contract renegotiation ensues.

PAGNOTTA: The record’s a big success — people forget that “Diamonds and Pearls” is the one of the best-selling record in Prince’s catalog — and then there was a tour: Europe, Asia and Australia, the U.S would be the next year. It was in my contract that I had to be where he was, and it was a very fraught experience. He would do things like quiz me on what songs he had played that night, and you never knew whether he was going to want to play in a club right after the main gig. You had to do a good job, because if you didn’t, you knew that there were there was a plane ticket waiting for you to go home. I was sure I was on that plane a number of times!

Anyway the tour was great, the reviews were just stupendous. But I got back home and all of a sudden there were all these little weird rumblings about some conflict between Prince and Warner Bros. But then he signed the “$100 million deal.”

There had been a number of huge deals in the early ’90s — Michael Jackson, Madonna, R.E.M. — and of course Prince had to have the biggest one. So we put out a press release that we jiggered together that said it was $100 million deal — but nobody really bothered to look into the details very closely, because he had to sell 5 million copies of each record to get the next $10 million advance, so that number was really bullshit. It’s the music business, right? And for a minute, it seemed like he was okay. But then he started to run into problems, because they didn’t want to release as many records as fast as he wanted. How can you accommodate a major artist who wants to release a record every three or six months? You just can’t do it.

Courtesy Michael Pagnotta

Courtesy Michael Pagnotta

GOLD: He was making noise about wanting his masters back and Mo’s response was essentially, “You should have thought that before you renegotiated your contract.” So Mo comes in one day and says, “Prince has changed his name.”

PAGNOTTA: At some point late in the spring [of 1993], with almost no notice, a call came through: Prince is changing his name. Dead silence! I finally said, “To what?” “The symbol.” Now, I knew what that meant, because when we were on the road, at a couple of gigs, he made me take a video camera into the middle of the arena and gave me [a small metal version of the symbol] off of one of his custom-made jumpsuits and said, “Ask people what they think this means.”

Some people said love. Some people said unity. But a good 80 to 90% of the people that I asked — whoever it was, man, woman, older, younger — said Prince. He’d been using it [since “1999”] so people had seen it, and once I think he realized his identification with that symbol was near-complete, I think it probably inspired him to go forward. So we put together a press release quickly and I wrote some bullshit about a phoenix rising from the ashes or something.

We sent out the floppy discs with the symbol in them and we had a video where it would, like, come from the background to the foreground and end with this “Current Affair”-type metallic clank. It was actually very well thought-out, even though we didn’t have enough time to really strategize.

GOLD: Prince was constantly doing the unexpected — his reputation was “Don’t be surprised by anything.” But it becomes apparent pretty quickly that he’s doing this so he can say, “Well, you guys signed Prince, but I’m not Prince anymore: I’m the symbol,” which of course isn’t going to fly, but we decided to have fun with it — which actually annoyed him even more. It was just another crazy thing from Prince, and we thought we could use it as a publicity stunt to get some attention, right?

It got comical at times, because the people at Paisley Park — who were, to some degree, terrified of their boss — would call and say, “My boss is on the phone for you.” And we’d say, “Who’s that, Prince?” “Well, my boss.” “Who is your boss?” We were just giving them shit, good naturedly.

The media was having a great time with it — with “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” and the [typographical] abbreviation comes out. But really, it’s just another crazy thing. And when we were talking about the next album — which has been reverse-engineered to be called “Love Symbol” — he said, “I just want this [symbol], I want I don’t want my name on here,” and we were collaborating on all this stuff with him and it was all kind of good natured, even though he was talking in the press about how he’s a slave and Warner Bros. is fucking him over. He was basically the same guy I’d been dealing with.

PAGNOTTA: The MTV piece of this is when Linda Corradina, who I think was their news director at that time, called me laughing. “I know you’re crazy. But this crazy, what are you doing?!” It was like a condolence conference because I honestly, honestly, thought my career was over. But we let all the bullshit pass, and people actually thought it was kind of interesting — silly, but interesting.

GOLD: At one point he was in my office, and he’s kind of complaining that Warner Bros. won’t let him release all the albums he wants to release, basically saying, “Let me get off the label and finish the contract by just delivering a bunch of music” [which is essentially what he ultimately did]. He knows exactly what he’s doing and he knows we know exactly what he’s doing, so I say to him, “You know, we paid you a huge amount of money for each one of these records as an advance, and we need to be able to market them and release two and three singles and give the marketplace some space between them. We can’t just release a record every three months.” And it was really one of the few times he broke character with me, he says something like, “You know that everybody thinks these albums are carefully crafted, conceptualized things? I’m in the studio constantly, and when I get enough songs that I think, hey, together, there’s a record, it’s a record. So I have a lot of inventory and I want to release a lot of albums.” That was the one time we had a real conversation, rather than him kind of fronting one of those almost pantomime things he was famous for.

It never got contentious with any of us — it might have gotten contentious with his lawyers talking to the business affairs people and things like that. But he was kin of doing his talking by press release, and he was showing up still at Warner Bros.’ offices and even at a marketing meeting — with the “slave” thing on his face! But there was never a time that he wasn’t talking to us or I couldn’t get him on the phone.

Around five years after he left Warner Bros in 1996, Prince reverted his name back to Prince, which he retained for the rest of his life. He released albums at a rapid clip, often two or even three per year, yet he never approached the commercial and critical peaks he’d hit in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

PAGNOTTA: I guess at some point he realized that it wasn’t really working, either legally or personally, and he did go through a tough period in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when he got to release as much music as he wanted and nobody really cared. So he changed it back to Prince and started playing the hits again, and his tours made millions of dollars.

It’s one of those moments in, at least, recent music history, that almost everybody remembers, whether they think it’s funny or brilliant or stupid: One of the most famous musicians or even people in the world erases themselves almost completely and turns their name into a unpronounceable glyph? It was so ridiculous and so unheard of, but at the same time, like, incredibly modern, or something? Prince was such a cryptic dude. He would say things to me and I wouldn’t understand what the fuck he was talking about. But then I’d be driving six months later, and be like, “Oooooh, that’s what he meant.”

At the time, of course, it just seemed like the most ridiculous thing that anybody could ever do. But now it seems genuinely historic.

Jeff Gold is now a music historian and owner of Recordmecca, which sells top-line music memorabilia and collectibles. Michael Pagnotta is an artist manager and owner of the publicity and marketing firm Reach Media.

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