To many, Prince is known for three things: his music, the movie Purple Rain (which is filled with his music), and that time (specifically 1993) he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol that blended the traditional symbols for "male" and "female."
It looked like this:
At the time, this was seen by many commentators as part of Prince's slowly slipping cultural cachet. The artist had dominated the 1980s, but he hadn't had a No. 1 album since the Batman soundtrack in 1989. Critics greeted his music with bigger and bigger shrugs.
But the name change was actually a shrewd attempt to anger that which Prince most hated: his record label.
The name change may have been an irritation tactic
Now, it's worth noting that Prince never came out and said he was trying to anger Warner Bros. music division with the name change. But he hinted as much many times, and the fact that he returned to using the name Prince in 2000 — after he'd been released from his contract — suggests that this was the reason for the name change all along.
Consider: Because of the name change, Warner got a ton of uninvited, mostly negative publicity about an artist who was supposed to be one of their top-tier performers.
Warner had to deal with Prince's suggestions that music made by him after the name change wasn't actually by Prince. (That likely wouldn't have held up in court, but if Prince's main objective was to irritate Warner Bros., that would be a good way to do it.)
After the change, Warner Bros. had to mail out floppy disks to news organizations featuring a font that allowed for reproduction of the new Prince symbol, because the symbol itself cannot be replicated in the fonts most publications use. (Indeed, I can't replicate it within the fonts Vox uses, which is why I'm just calling it "the symbol" throughout this article.)
All of these things were minor irritants in and of themselves, but combined together, they surely frustrated Warner Bros. greatly.
So what was the conflict between these two parties about? Would you believe Warner Bros. wanted less Prince music?
The name change was part of an epic battle between Prince and his label
According to Ro, Prince was constantly creating new music, and he wanted to release as much of it as possible. At the time of the name change, he owed Warner Bros. Music five albums — but his vault of unreleased songs (rumored to exist to this day) held more than 500 tunes. So this problem should have had an easy solution, right?
Not necessarily. Warner Bros. worried about flooding the market with Prince music; Prince wanted out of his record contract because he believed that the music industry was inherently corrupt, with power accumulating in the hands of a few individuals, and that power should be restored to the artist. (The collapse of the music industry in the wake of Napster would more or less prove him right on this point, and he soured on the internet as a music-delivery mechanism later in his life.)
Thus, Prince wanted to take some of those 500 unreleased songs, put them on CDs, and be done with his contract. Warner Bros. probably wouldn't have minded that, per se, but it wanted to space out those albums to create the usual hubbub around a new release and have tours specifically geared toward the album in question. And every year Prince spent having to do that was another year he was tied to Warner.
The two sides eventually came to an understanding — one that included a greatest hits album, which is a classic move for artists and labels trying to burn off a contract neither of them wants to be part of any more — but it still took Prince years and years to get out of his contract. Those with the power had won, and he would seek to maintain as much control over his music as possible — including being reluctant to allow his music to appear on most online platforms — for the rest of his life.
The name change presaged the future in other ways, too
There's another footnote here, which is that by changing his name to a symbol, Prince thought he could find out who in the media still respected him enough to do as he requested. Always suspicious of journalists, he clearly hoped this would be a way to figure out which members of the press he could still trust.
Because of the limitations of fonts I outlined above, few publications went along with the name change, until the clunky statement "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" came to be his name in most media accounts of his doings. After Prince changed his name back in 2000, this particular battle with the media would seem to have been over.
But in some ways, this presaged the current struggle of those who don't adhere to the gender binary to get the press to refer to them by a preferred pronoun.
For the most part, media outlets have evolved rapidly, for instance, on calling trans people by their preferred names. But if someone who isn't comfortable identifying as male or female asks to be referred to even by the common pronoun "they" (to say nothing of alternative pronouns like "xir"), most media outlets continue to struggle with respecting that individual's wishes.
It's not an exact, one-to-one correlation, but Prince's mere existence proved a major part of the shifting cultural conversation around sexual and gender norms. That he might have foreshadowed this particular conversation, in his own way, 23 years ago, would only be appropriate.