Purple Rain – Prince on Improvisation, Ingenuity and Innovation

The name Prince is synonymous with innovation in music. From classy pop classics such as ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ and ‘U Got The Look’ through to high class jazz, soul and funk, working with artists such as Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, and George Clinton. Prince performs at this weekend’s Hop Farm festival in Kent and I’m delighted to have a ticket for the occasion. Check this performance of Superstition out with Stevie Wonder out to see what you will be missing if you are not there.

Unlike many performers in rock’s monarchy, a Prince live performance is often different every night. This is because Prince operates from a menu of 300 songs, which the band may be called upon to play at any time, whereas many other artists prefer to perfect and then repeat their set night after night. Admittedly, this is difficult for some of his audience to take but speaks of artistic integrity and a desire to constantly develop. I was discussing how Prince achieves such amazing levels of nimbleness and ingenuity with my colleague John Howitt, a professional musician who has performed for Celine Dion, Anastasia and Shirley Bassey to name but a few. We came to a set of conclusions, with parallel lessons for businesses that are interested in being fast, nimble and continuously innovative. Here are a couple:

• To reach mastery in improvisation paradoxically requires intensive detailed preparation. What looks like a seamless performance is the result of many hours of preparation and Prince is meticulous in this respect. In business this has been referred to ‘the 10,000 hours effect’ by Tom Peters and, more recently, Malcolm Gladwell. The idea of prepared spontaneity contradicts what some so-called creativity and innovation gurus say on the subject, yet we constantly see parallels across many industries. Sloppy creativity produces sloppy results in many businesses.

• 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 cross mental boundaries is the parallel skill set, as exemplified by companies such as 3M and Google.

I explore more of Prince’s personal qualities and the relationship with becoming an agile, ingenious and innovative company within the book “Sex, Leadership and Rock‘n’Roll” and the new one “The Music of Business“, acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith.

I’m delighted to say that I managed to get a copy of the book to Prince at his last series of O2 concerts and have been told that he enjoyed it. Praise indeed! John Howitt draws a distinction between Prince’s level of risk taking on stage versus his experience of working with artists such as Celine Dion, who aims for a perfect, polished performance which can be reproduced night after night. Both approaches are valid and rest on thorough preparation if you want to reach out for excellence. An object lesson for all – if you want to be a star, know that perspiration is much more important than inspiration. Here’s a little bit of improvisation from an impromptu event in Italy:

We will be exploring aspects of Prince’s approach to improvisation, innovation and reinvention at the 7th International HR summit event in Athens, Greece on October 20th following on from Dave Ulrich. For now, its the Hop Farm for me to witness his purple majesty in action on 03 July.


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk

30 responses to “Purple Rain – Prince on Improvisation, Ingenuity and Innovation

  1. I don’t know if there is one more lesson from Prince. He is an artist who I feel I ought to like, but actually find his work rather tedious. Could it be that innovation for its own sake isn’t always a good thing?


  2. I think you make a VERY valid point here. Prince’s “Achilles heel” is that he has not stuck to a style like the Rolling Stones, Oasis and others – that makes him ‘hard to position’ and, of course, as we are mostly creatures of habit, that is an accessibility problem. His desire to innovate at all costs has probably lost him an audience / $$ in a world that prefers the next record to sound like the last. Radiohead and Pink Floyd have all at various times done things just because they wanted to, to varying audience responses.

    The other issue that many people raise is that his image obscures the fact that he plays 43 instruments and has been compared to genius musical figures. Plenty of transferable lessons about style and substance here I’d say.

    Thanks for the post – most stimulating Brian.


  3. Whatever his style, I just love Prince’s musicality and wink-wink twinkly eyes. The guy knows how to have fun – and that in itself is a great way to connect with folks whether or not they may like a particular musical style. What struck me most watching the Prince/Stevie Wonder video was the human connection. Prince was emotionally intelligent enough to interact with the blind Stevie through touch. He changed places with Stevie. Gave Stevie enough direction and comfort for the moment when Prince took over the keyboards. Then another tactile exchange and they switched back. I watched the expression on Stevie’s face become joyful at each touch. That is probably Prince’s basic genius – understanding how to connect on many levels and in a very human way. This is something that businesses can take note of. Buyers want more humanity!


    • I agree Ellie – he may not be consistent enough for some but he sho nuff knows how to reach an audience.

      Another point I’ve noted from various times seeing Prince is that he will behave like a backing muso, when he supports a star like Chaka Khan and you spotted this with Stevie Wonder – this emotional intelligence is rare in the ego driven world of rock stars!!

      I will be seeing Prince this Sunday. Hurrah!

      Thanks for the comment. Peter


  4. I would like to consider the downside of Prince the product when he is so flexible. As we are likening this to a business instance, I would like to analyse expectation in product function. It does what it says on the tin is a much used expression these days, mainly due to clever advertising. However, upon seeing Prince at the O2 a few years ago, the two things that struck me, were the hype, followed by an almost random selection of songs, that apparently were not the same on any of the 30 nights he played? What of the expectation of the customer? If we are so flexible in business that we provide a service or product which the end user realises is not what they expected, but rather what we want to provide, what happens?

    Having seen Joe Jackson last year, again I saw someone who continues to innovate, but who has segmented this innovation In phases, or known products. In this way the customer tends to know what they are getting beforehand.



    • I could not agree more that he does not pander to playing the hits. I was bitterly disappointed when I went to one of his aftershows to find that he did not show up. This is what it means when it says ‘expect the unexpected’. I must say I found that very hard to swallow.

      On the other hand, he continues to amaze me, even though I would agree that I find the no show a real pain. I guess it comes down as to whether you go to see a rock show expecting to her certain set pieces or not. Had I chose to write about Prince’s ‘customer care charter’, the article would have been different Dave! 🙂

      I do hope he turns up this weekend!


  5. Hi Peter

    I like the way in which you combine the (apparently) different worlds of music and business. As soon as I saw this blog entry, the refrain from Purple Rain revolved around my brain.

    With regards to creativity, the challenge is that established enterprises are often too scared of losing what they own. Creativity involves change (which senior executives can be wary of).

    I taught creative thinking to a corporate audiences for 12 years. I found it challenging to change them – so I admire your work and everything you have achieved.

    All the best


  6. I enjoyed your article on Prince. He’s an artist that truly stands alone. Countless hours of rehearsal since the 70s, thousands of concerts as well as thousands of after show concerts that go into the wee hours of the morning. Never have I seen an artist with the energy, work ethic, creativity, longevity and passion for all things music.

    You wrote, “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.” I’d like to comment on that. Being a long time DJ, I’ve noticed that Prince’s music has been played less and less and less as the years go by. Nowadays, if it isn’t an 80s or retro night, Prince is rarely played. It seems DJs are into Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Britney, LMFAO and so much more.

    That tells me that while Prince has innovated, he also hasn’t stayed relevant to today’s young people because he hasn’t found a way to make music that appeals to their sensibilities. He refuses to go to outside producers at the top of their music (and business) game like Will.I.Am, Stuart Price, LMFAO and RedOne. While Prince doesn’t really need to go to outside producers, by not doing so ever, he’s limiting his scope of appeal to a much wider audience which, in a business sense of the word, isn’t the best decision. Being a lover of Prince’s music since 1980, I’ve found that his production techniques were exemplary from 1978 – 1988. Around that time, he changed his sound and arrangements and in many ways, his music lacked the same immediacy, intricacy and dynamic. When he got NPG together in the early 90s, he made a wonderful business decision in doing so because he crafted the albums “Diamonds & Pearls”, “The Symbol album” and “The Gold Experience”, all masterworks in songs of depth and perfection.

    For me though, when it comes to Prince’s business decisions, I’ve never seen another artist stumble like Prince did when he battled against and severed his relationship with Warner Brothers, the label that had given him his start and been with him until 1996. Even though he had signed all contracts with them, he later complained he didn’t own the masters and didn’t have the freedom to release music when he wanted. Once Prince left Warners, his career was never the same. Radio rarely played his post Warners work and he didn’t have the promotional and distribution power of Warner Brothers in his corner. As the years go by, I’ve seen Prince’s presence on radio, in clubs, in print and on TV diminish to some degree rather than increase. I think a huge reason for that is Prince’s business decision to go it alone and be his own label, publicist, manager, distributer and promoter. And, while he has gotten labels to distribute some of his post Warners records, none of them have led to the incredible media presence he had in the 80s and 90s with WB. It’s unfortunate because in a business sense, it wasn’t the strongest move he could have made. If he hadn’t confused the public with the name change (due to contractual battles with Warners that most didn’t have the knowledge to connect) and had the foresight to collaborate with outside producers, Prince would be played in the clubs, embraced more by the radio and young people (a great many of whom by the music) and would be in a much stronger place business wise.

    And, to go into deeper detail for a moment, Prince’s having become a devout Jehovahs Witness in the late 90s and remaining so to this day has caused him (due to the tenants of his religion) to distance himself from many songs in his back catalog like Gett Off, Sexy MF, Dirty Mind, Sexuality, Nasty Girl, Sex Shooter, Sugar Walls, and so much more which has caused him to have a much more limited set list in playing what the people want. Prince plays a great deal of covers these days and while he may want to play Sly and The Family Stone’s song, “Everyday People” or Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”, the many people I’ve talked to that go to his shows do NOT want to hear him covering other artists work. They go to a Prince show to be immersed in PRINCE’s music. From a business standpoint, that is the direction Prince should go in. No more covers, don’t distance himself from past songs. He should embrace his ENTIRE discography and by doing so and playing it for he’ll audience, he’ll make his audience far happier, truly and completely tap into his spontaneity and become one with his craft and songcraft and performance in ways that we haven’t seen in a long time. Prince, his talent and his musicology were around long before he became a devout Jehovahs Witness. And, while his wanting to be in a faith isn’t the issue, it’s having that faith change his musical course which in turn changes his level of spontaneity can be in many different ways an issue.


    • One more thing I should add is Prince’s level of integrity has no peer and when it comes to his level of improvisation, it goes both ways. Having seen him 8 times on his recent “Welcome 2 America” tour at The Forum in LA, each show had parts of the set that were wildly different, yet there were specific chunks that were always the same. A piano medley where he sampled bits of many songs were always played in the same order and most of the time with the same lines ad-libbed by Prince as he played them. He’d always play the opening music of Gett Off, Nasty Girl and even Darling Nikki, but before the first verse came on, he’d go to the next song bite, saying, “Oh no. I’m in rehab.” While he joked in an improvisational way with the audience, toying with them, the fact he said the the same lines and didn’t play those songs each night demonstrated that when he wants, Prince is very structured in his approach. I remember the 3rd time seeing him, a woman told me with excitement, “I hope he plays the song ‘Darling Nikki’ and I had to let her down easy saying, “He won’t be playing that one. His religious faith forbids it.” She didn’t believe me. When the beginning chords came on during his piano medley came on, her face lit up and she looked at me with a “Ha Ha. I told you so” kind of a look. Little did she know what I knew and sure enough, right before the 1st verse, Prince moved on to the next song. Needless to say, the woman was very disappointed.

      Another portion of Prince’s LA shows had another medley part where he played bits of Let’s Go Crazy, 1999, Little Red Corvette, etc, and each time he played that medley, it was in the exact same way. And, while he did have elements of improvisation in the way he performed it, I realized that Prince has a habit of making the very polished look very improvised. That’s a master musician.


  7. I don’t doubt that the reason Prince finds it so easy to improvise is that he has rehearsed meticulously – it’s what I call ‘prepared spontaneity; in the book Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll Myles. you are right – making it look easy is a sign of mastery.

    As to your other points, I am not as knowledgeable on his religious persuasions. It’s true that his variations in style and disputes with the record business have possibly prevented him from becoming an all out evergreen artist, but I guess this is the price of integrity. As a fellow musician, I can hear his influence in many modern artists.

    Many thanks for these fantastic posts, which shed further light on the structure of genius Myles.

    May U live 2 C the Dawn



  8. Great post, Peter – as always. However, let’s not forget Prince’s unspoken inspiration – a certain Mr. David Bowie. In my opinion he and Peter Gabriel are the revolutionaries to follow (and maybe Freddie Mercury too).

    You make some fantastic points that are extremely applicable across multiple industries. With innovation comes risk, but there is also the potential for significant rewards.

    Keep the faith, my Rock and Roll brother!

    Jim Bowie


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  10. I have always thought that David Bowie was Prince’s unspoken inspiration. I have always loved David’s willingness to take chances musically. David was and still is a funky mofo!!!


    • Good call Ian – I would say there are some parallels in terms of risk taking and perfection in presentation. Bowie’s music is another area for exploration altogether and you have given me a great idea for a post on the genius that is David Bowie in a few weeks time.

      Thanks for this post Ian

      My best



  11. What a powerful lesson. Practice practice practice. Love it! And that’s from someone who doesn’t get Prince. I get his teaching though – great post Peter and lovely to see all the conversation it has sparked, well done.


    • Thank you Doug. It’s even more gratifying when someone who is not clouded by being a fan can see the connections between the music and business example. That surely makes you a ‘higher life form’, as many musicians I know are simply so passionate about their likes and hates that it stops them seeing ‘behind the stage’ so to speak. Most people who are masters of anything will tell you about the preparation behind the spontaneity if they are honest enough.

      Thanks again for the post



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  15. This from Gavin Jones:

    Firstly, it’s great to see an article about Prince and not PRINCE, in regards to business (ie Improvisation, Agility and Learning – Lessons from Prince).

    Secondly, it’s the best description of improvising I’ve come across. I put it up on LinkedIn (hope that’s ok). People talk a lot about improvising in business, and creativity, and I reckon the most important thing by far is that it takes a lot of miserable, lonely hours of learning before anything else, just to get started with creativity, certainly in terms of music at least. Something I’d like to learn more about is case studies about creativity and improvisation in business. The OU course was amazing in this regard, but I reckon there’s a lot more learning to be done on my part. I’m looking forward to talking about this and other things when we meet, eventually…

    Yours, inspired,



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