The Artist weaves a web

JD Considine

By recording industry standards, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince ts turning into The Artist Who Formerly Had a Career. Once one of the biggest stars in pop music, he seems to have shrunken into the shadows.

He’s barely on M1V anymore, hasn’t made a movie since Graffiti Bridge flopped, and hasn’t released a million-seller since The Hits/The B· Sides came out in 1993. He doesn’t even have a record deal anymore.

By his own standards, however, things couldn’t be better. -"People who wonder if I miss ’the top’ have no concept of evolution!” he says, in an interview conducted via fax and e-mail. “There is no ’top,’ unless one goes down. Yet another fall from grace. What a joke!”

Indeed. And perhaps the funniest thing of all is that the further he gets from that star-making machinery, the more in touch with his fans he becomes.

Start with the record company situation. When Prince (as he was known then) signed his last agreement with Warner Bros Records, he thought he had a dream contract Not only would he be getting a higher royalty rate, but lie also was granted unparalleled artistic latitude through Paisley Park, the Warner-distributed boutique label he established for his side projects.

There was only one problem – the bottom line. Warner had based its expectations on the multi-platinum sales of 1999 and the Purple Rain soundtrack. Prince, however, had other interests, and when bis projects failed to generate the profits Warner Bros expected, the dream turned into a nightmare. In 1993, Warner objected to Prince’s . pace of production and refused to release new albums at the rate Prince was recording them. In protest, the musician renounced the name “Prince”, replacing it with an unpronounceable glyph.

He also announced that he would cease recording – in effect forcing Warner Bros to deal with the  backlog of unreleased tapes. In response, Warner ended its distribution deal with Paisley Park, effectively shutting the label down. By 1995, · things had gotten so ugly that ’the Artist (as he now prefers to be called) began to appear in public with the word “slave" spelled out on his cheek. He finally parted company with Warner Bros last year.

Asked if the situation with Warner would have been better had the label been less interested in mega-hits, The Artist demurs. “These are the dramas of the unenlightened,” he says. “My job was to create the music - not to sell it.”

Funnily enough, his current situation finds him handling both Jobs. After leaving Warner, he cut a deal with EMI America for his first totally new album in years, the three-CD Emancipation, which came out last November. It was negotiated as a single-album deal, but before he and EMI could arrange further projects, the label went out of business. Suddenly, The Artist was on his own.

It was a situation that would have left others scratching their heads or moaning the blues. But The Artist saw it as an opportunity. An avid online buff, he realized he didn’t need a record company to reach his fans - all it took was the World Wide Web.

So in July, he started a Web site (at, which describes itself as “the definitive place of gathering 4 all who love life. The beginning of a webwide effort 2 change the vibration of the world.”

One of the first things he did online was announce his next recording project, a four-CD set of what he calls “bootleg” material. Dubbed Crystal Ball, it retails for US$50 and is available only by phone order. It’s not a normal album release. For one thing, Crystal Ball is, at the moment, merely a speculative effort, as The Artist won’t actually begin pressing the set until he has 100,000 pre-orders in hand. (More than 70,000 have been received so far.

By dealing directly with his audience, The Artist hopes to produce music at a pace that suits his creativity, instead of being shackled to a marketing system designed to milk albums for as long as three years. “That process is what turned the better part .of the music industry Jn2 the land of ’hear 2day, gone 2day artists,’ he writes.

"I suppose it’s good for somebody, obviously not The Artist.”

In addition to using the Web to get the word out · about his music, The Artist is hoping to create a virtual community of computer-savvy fans. One of the features of his Web site is the New Power Generation’s “Xperiment in ’Truth,” a fan database The Artist is building- in order to develop a direct line” to his fans. If that sounds like some sort of marketing scheme, consider the fact that those who take part in the “Xperiment” receive copies of an all-acoustic album called The Truth. Or look at the information that turns up on The Artist’s Web site. Recent nuggets have ranged from fan club stuff like tips on TV appearances and news about The Artist’s Love 4 One Another charity, to gossipy items about how he and his wife,. Mayte, keep in touch from the road by laptop and Quickcam.

Why is The Artist so obsessed with online life?

"I’m attracted to fertile ground,” he answers. For him, the lack of media filters and the presence of so many like-minded individuals is an irresistible combination. “There is a saying that goes ’Where .there is more than one there is aberration,’” he says. “The connection between my ’friends’ and I, online, is unbroken by aberration.”

He connects in other ways as well. His ongoing “Jam of the Year” tour often finds him topping a full concert performance with loose, jam-oriented after-show parties” that have found The Artist getting down with the local luminaries. Some even join him onstage. Funk pioneer Larry Graham sat in during the Nashville show, ’70s soul revivalist D’Angelo did some numbers in New York, and R&B legend Rufus Thomas got up and got down in Memphis.

"We never know if there’s going to be one until the day of (the show),” says Frances Pennington, who handles publicity for The Artist. Nor Is there ever an official announcement of where the after-show is being held. “Word Just spreads around,” she says.