Twin Cities Tycoon

Greg Kot




Slogan on the Paisley Park carpet: “Ask yourself your destination / What the source of your inspiration be.”

Led down the Paisley Park hallway to a glass-enclosed conference room by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince’s assistant, I see the author of those cryptic words sitting at the head of a fingerprint-smudged glass table the length of a stretch limousine. He cuts an elfin figure in black flared pants, a purple vest, and dangling cross earrings. The Artist, a notoriously private man who requires every person who enters Paisley Park to sign a four-page confidentiality agreement, doesn’t so much grant an interview as put on a performance—answering questions in tangent-filled paragraphs punctuated by the staccato tapping of his white, Cuban-heeled boots.

Those heels fly into a flamenco frenzy when I ask him if he now considers himself a businessman. “Businessman?” sputters the de facto chief executive office of NPG Records. “I hate that word. Can’t stand it. It’s not a business, what I do.”

More artists than you realize are watching him because he’s breaking ground,” says Gary Arnold, who, as a senior vice president at the Best Buy retail chain, buys albums directly from the Artist. “He’s one of the first topics of conversation whenever I meet with people like Elton John. They’re all very interested, because he’s managed to maintain control of his product at a time when the record business is basically being run by five major corporations.”

Of course, that doesn’t make certain industry powers very happy. The Artist’s decision to sell his Crystal Ball album over the Internet and directly to certain retailers upset many music distributors, who make their money as middlemen taking records from labels to the stores. (He decided to use independent distributors to handle Newpower Soul.) “What he’s doing is a pure ego thing, running a label without really knowing how,” complains one distributor. “I’d say he’s succeeding at his little end run around the music industry about as well as Pearl Jam did in their fight against TicketMaster.”

Yet the Artist’s sales figures hardly suggest a career in decline. Newpower Soul sold 138,000 in its first months of release—a poor showing compared to the Artist’s commercial heyday but more than his last album for Warner Bros. And though the album’s songs are mostly the kind of by-the-numbers party funk he used to crank out as B-sides in the ’80s, he continues to draw sizeable crowds on the road, selling out midsize venues without much promotion. (Rather than work with a booking agent, as is the industry norm, the Artist schedules most of his concerts himself, so he can keep a larger share of the revenues.) But his most lucrative venture was Crystal Ball, which NPG says sold 250,000 copies at prices ranging from thirty to fifty dollars.

Under his contract with Warner Bros., the Artist says he would have kept no more then 20 percent of that total—after deducting the label’s “recoupable” expenses for recording, marketing, and tour support. Now, the Artist says he keeps anywhere from 80 to 95 percent. “You do the math?” he crows.

Now he controls his career completely, micromanaging even the most mundane details with a staff of twenty-five. As he gives me a tour of the building, he stops to show me the office of in-house artist Steve Parke, who’s busy designing the cover of a new single, “Come On.” “Hmmmm. I wonder how come every background on our last couple of releases happens to be black?” the Artist says.

Parke glances up from his Macintosh.

“But I’m not saying anything,” the Artist says with a cackle. “Don’t mind me.”

Before we move on, I notice Parke has begun tinkering with lighter backgrounds.

“The hardest thing I do all day is write checks,” the Artist says. “Booking a show? I call up a few radio programmers, tell them I’m coming to town in a few days, and place a $5,000 ad—that’s my idea of promotion. I call up the guy from Best Buy or the guy from Target and play them the record. ’Oh, you like it? How many you want?’ That’s distribution.

“Money is a joke to us—it’s just paper; a symbol for a transaction,” the Artist continues. “It’s paper with a bunch of presidents’ faces on it. Our faces aren’t on there, so why should we care?”

Not everyone in the industry grooves on such informality. “The Artist is bungling it,” says Joe Kviders, the general manager of Tower Records in Chicago. “Even a little local group like Poi Dog Pondering does a much better job of operating independently, even if it means driving to the store themselves and selling their records out of their trunk. Poi Dog’s operation is a sophisticated multinational corporation compared to the way Prince runs his business.”

“He’s real capricious,” says the distributor who sees him as Pearl Jam to the music industry’s TicketMaster. “He wanted cash on delivery for Newpower Soul, but we got him to agree to the industry standard, which is a sixty-day billing period. Then, twenty-five days after delivery, he changes his mind and says he wants payment within thirty days—’Can you shoot us a check next week?’ He has no clue how the industry operates.”

Complaints have also arisen about the pricing of NPG albums. Music retailers were invited to Paisley Park to listen to Newpower Soul and told they could buy copies for ten dollars, with a suggested markup to $12.99 in the stores. “But a few retailer balked, because that’s a totally unrealistic price—I mean, how can anyone make money on a three-dollar markup?” says the distributor. “It’s not like these discs magically go from Minneapolis to a store in New York. There’s just not enough money for everybody in the middle. So some retailers who played hardball with him got it for nine dollars, and a few even got it for eight dollars. If I were a retailer who paid full fare and found that out, I’d be pretty hacked off.” (L. Londell McMillan, a New York attorney who runs NPG with the Artist, says that although some retailers received discounts for buying in bulk, those accusations are “absolutely not true. The pricing system we use is absolutely consistent and standard.”)

Some of the Artist’s fans also wish he would get a better grip on his business, and several even set up Web sites to deride NPG’s distribution of Crystal Ball, which was delivered to some Internet customers weeks after it showed up in stores. One disgruntled fan who waited months for an order to be filled even refers to him as the Artist Currently Known as Asshole.

“He’s the first major artist to sell his product through the Internet, and there were minor problems filling the Crystal Ball orders,” replied McMillan. “The Artist’s fans are so into him that they want their product yesterday, and that’s not always possible.”

The Artist and I walk down Paisley Park’s spiral staircase to a first-floor studio so that he can play me some of his label’s new music. As [Larry] Graham and I sit on a couch and listen to Graham’s forthcoming album, the Artist jumps around and plays air bass. “Let’s see Me’Shell Ndegeocello do this,” he says. Then he cues up a bonus track which he says will be included with “Come On"—a twang-free cover of Shania Twain’s country hit “You’re Still the One,” transformed into a roaring gospel-funk showdown between the Artist and New Power Generation vocalist Marva King.

“Why’d I leave Warner Bros.? Because I can do this type of thing every day,” the Artist says, pointing to the speakers. “I like to go with my intuition. Something hits me and I need to get the track down before I can move on. It’s like there’s another person inside me, talking to me, and I’m learning to listen to that voice.”

“It’s a way of cutting the chaos off, cutting off the outside voices,” the Artist explains. “I heard ’Prince is crazy’ so much that it had an effect on me. So one day I said, ’Let me just check out.’ Here there is solitude, silence—I like to stay in this controlled environment. People say I’m out of touch, but I’ll do twenty-five or thirty more albums—I’m gonna catch up with Sinatra— so you tell me who’s out of touch. One thing I ain’t gonna run out of is music.”

When I mention that he seems to be enjoying himself onstage more than he has in years, the Artist nods vigorously. “It was like a TV that had been playing for years suddenly got shut off and you realize, ’I don’t have to make a record now, I don’t have to tour, I don’t have to go into the studio.’ I can do whatever I want to do and nobody can say I can’t.”

“He runs on energy, adrenaline,” says [Paisley Park engineer Hans-Martin] Buff. “I think he discovered coffee recently, but he doesn’t smoke or drink. and he doesn’t allow anyone else to smoke or drink while we’re at work.”

Why put up with the grueling hours?

“Because he’s a genius,” Buff says, looking at me as if I had grown a second head. “He works long hours, but he accomplishes a lot. No one works more quickly. I’ve been at sessions [with other artists] where it takes half a day to bring in a keyboardist or a bassist to play a part, but if something’s missing in one of his arrangements, he just does it himself and moves on.”

As Alan Leeds, his former tour manager and business associate says, “Music is like a newspaper to him, and his attitude is, What’s the point of reading last week’s paper? So we were always scheming of ways to get more product out when he was at Warner Bros. What he doesn’t understand is that the record industry—radio, media, even the public—doesn’t function that way. You need time and money to get their attention, but his attitude was always: That’s done — on to the next thing.”

But while the Artist may now have the ability to release every single song that grows out of the one-hundred-plus-hour weeks he spends in the studio, a never-ending river of product could also wash away his reputation as a hitmaking genius. Even he describes his recent albums this way: “There are gems buried everywhere.” And he says it doesn’t bother him that only die-hard fans may bother to dig for them.

“Why would I want to sell millions of records?” the Artist asks.

“To become rich and famous?” I suggest.

“Exactly! Except I didn’t get into this business to get rich and famous—I got into it to play music. I happen to be rich because I didn’t trip on it.”

As the Artist shakes my hand goodbye in the foyer of Paisley Park, he makes a final point: “I have nothing against the music industry. I just wanted to be free of it to explore all options for releasing my music. And I’ll tell you this—I’ll work with the music industry again, probably to release my next album.”

I ask him why.

He laughs. “For the money, of course.”

A few minutes later, I’m walking towards my car in the parking lot when I’m startled by the roar of an engine. A white BMW slides up alongside me and a black-tinted window glides down. It’s the Artist, wearing shades, anxious to amend his parting statement.

“I felt kind of weird saying that,” he says. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. These major labels, they got deep pockets. But that’s not the bottom line. You make the money so you can revitalize the careers of people like Larry Graham and Chaka Khan. You make the money because you have a responsibility to do the right thing. And if my wife has a new home because of that, well, that’s a nice bonus.”

With that, he laughs and speeds off, a one-man record industry loose in the hills of Minnesota.