The Head-Scratching Story Behind Prince Changing His Name to a Symbol

Artists reinvent themselves constantly. But there was nothing like Prince changing his name to a symbol in 1993. People assumed the change was Prince’s reaction to a long-running contract dispute with his label, Warner Bros. Records. He chose an unpronounceable symbol to be free of identification. The symbol was a way of existing outside classification. 

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The symbol couldn’t be reproduced using a keyboard so the press team mailed floppy discs containing the image to the media. Prince colloquially became known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”

Dating back to Purple Rain, the symbol originally juxtaposed male and female gender signs. It was later altered to add an extended horn element. The horn was reminiscent of his famous cloud guitar.

In 1992, Prince released an untitled album now called Love Symbol. The front cover featured the updated symbol, reworked and copyrighted. 

Prince teased the public by being vague about the name change. “My spirit directed me to do it,” he told MTV’s Kurt Loder at the time. “People can say something about Prince, and it used to bother me. Once I changed my name, it had no effect on me.”

Returning to his dispute with Warner Bros., the issue of control disturbed Prince. He famously wrote “Slave” on the side of his face in protest. The contract dispute had much to do with who owned the music. Prince, too, didn’t want to be told how often he was supposed to record or release new albums. 

In a traditional recording agreement, the record label owns the rights to the sound recordings. It was reported at the time Prince’s new contract was worth $100 million. The label wouldn’t budge on his demand to release music as often as he wished. Warner Bros. had genuine concerns over quality and market saturation. 

After Graffiti Bridge, Prince wasn’t as commercially successful as he had been. The label persuaded him to give them more creative control. The following album was Diamonds and Pearls with the New Power Generation. 

An example of Warner Bros. new influence was in the cover artwork for Diamonds and Pearls. Prince had designed an album cover with a close-up of his face, sticking his tongue through two fingers. The label objected and persuaded The Artist to change the cover. It wasn’t easy but they ended up with the famous hologram cover and Prince was happy. Diamonds and Pearls is one of his best-selling albums. 

Regarding the $100 million deal, Prince was required to meet sales goals to access the money. Tension grew over the label’s refusal to release his back catalog at a constant pace. He’d built an inventory of songs and he wanted to put them out. But the label couldn’t build anticipation for an artist intent on releasing new music every few months. 

Prince approached Mo Ostin, Warner Bros. Records’ chief executive, demanding his masters. But he was already locked into the new contract which explicitly stated the label owned and controlled the master recordings. 

The frustration became public with the press release announcing the name change. Released on Prince’s 35th birthday, it said he was “starting over.” Coinciding with his break from his backing band, the New Power Generation, Prince was changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Employees at Paisley Park were confused about what to call him. They’d refer to him as “the boss” for fear of angering Prince, or The Artist Formerly Known As. 

A video went out with the press release showing the symbol moving from the background to the foreground, landing with a metal clinking sound. 

The ploy didn’t end with Warner Bros. releasing Prince from his contract. But it did provide for great publicity. Prince eventually left the label in 1996 after his contract ended. 

After leaving Warner Bros., The Artist Formerly Known As released albums with the frequency he preferred. But he never achieved the commercial success he had in the ’80s and early ’90s. The Artist returned to using his original name in 2000. 

Prince changing his name to a symbol is one of the wildest musical reinventions in history—even by the standards of an artist who never stopped surprising fans. He set the bar of mysteriousness and unpredictability. His career was defined by eccentricity. 

The symbol came to be known as “love” and “unity.” Ultimately, it was just another sign of Prince’s creative genius. A Sign ‘o’ the Times, Prince created his own language. He wouldn’t be limited by anyone or anything—not even by his own name. 

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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