“Prince Speaks”

The pop singer who used to go by the name of Prince tells of his plans for life after Warner Bros.

Joshua Levin

SITTING ON THE FLOOR of his pastel-colored recording studio near Minneapolis, the pop singer formerly known as Prince--he now wants to be known simply as The Artist--spins a newly minted demo track from an upcoming album. It’s a thick fog of organ chords, electronic drums, the singer’s own moaning falsetto and, recorded in utero, the heartbeat of the baby his new wife will deliver in November.

Love it, ignore it or hate it, the elfin rock star has sold close to 100 million records for the Warner Bros. label in the past 20 years. Come November, his Warner Bros. contract settled, he will be out on his own--no link-up with any big label. It’s something no pop star of his stature has done on this scale.

Late last month the musician-turned-business-mogul outlined for Forbes his recording and marketing plans. They are nothing if not ambitious. He wants to flood the market with his work. That’s something Warner would never let him do, and it was this issue that helped trigger the split. The disagreements got pretty bitter. While carrying out his last few remaining obligations to Warner, he always has the word “slave" scrawled on his cheek. Says an ex-Warner executive: “Despite his brilliance, one record after another causes burnout.”

If so, then it’s burn, baby, burn, the singer retorts. “My music wants to do what it wants to do, and I just want to get out of its way,” he says. “I want the biggest shelf in the record store--the most titles. I know they’re not all going to sell, but I know somebody’s going to buy at least one of each.” With the marketing shackles off, his fans can expect what the poet Shelley called “profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

Already stored in his studio vaults are literally tens of thousands of hours of music, including an unreleased album he made with legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. The first independent release will be a 3-CD, 36-song set called Emancipation. It will probably sell for between $36 and $40. Pretty stiff? He’s not modest. “I polled kids on the Internet, and no one said they would pay less than $50 for a new 3-CD set,” he says.

When the musician talks about being independent, he means independent. He plays all the instruments--except horns and tambourine--on Emancipation. He’s also considering pressing his own records and handling his own distribution. With no percentages to pay distributors, he figures he could net as much as $21 on the 3-CD set--a 45% margin on retail price. Why let the middlemen make so much money?

Londell McMillan is a lawyer with the firm of Gold, Farrell & Marks, who represented the musician in the breakup with Warner Bros. “You see what’s going on in the industry,” says the New York City-based showbiz attorney, “and you have to ask yourself, is this artist the kind of mercurial crazy some people say, or is he the wise one who understands where he fits at the start of a new century?”

By this time next year the answer may be in. Plans are for a worldwide tour to support Emancipation in 1997, worth as much as $45 million in ticket sales--and, of course, he’ll sell albums at his concerts. “Maybe we could put a sampler on every seat,” he says with a sly grin. “Or give them the whole thing, and build it into the ticket price.”

Then there’s the 1-800-NewFunk direct-selling hotline, which gets some 7,000 calls a month, for clothing and related merchandise. Will Emancipation also be sold direct via phone? “You bet,” he says.

The go-it-alone strategy got a test-run in 1994 with a single called “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and an accompanying seven-song sampler released independently. The single sold a million units just in the U.S., but the economics of selling a $1.85 (wholesale) single virtually insured that it couldn’t make money. Still, the man who branded himself a slave liked his first taste of freedom. He figured that with a bigger-ticket item he could pull it off. “I was number one in countries like Spain and the U.K. where I never had a number one single before,” he says of his earlier marketing effort.

Al Bell, who used to own Stax Records, now owns Bellmark Records, which distributed “The Most Beautiful Girl.” But there’s a difference. At a full three hours, there’s a heaping helping of music. “I don’t recall seeing anything like this before, but I would not bet against it,” says Bell. “All bets are off on normalcy here.”

Big-label insiders naturally take a more skeptical view. “He’s got a real strong ego, but if he takes all this on himself, it’s going to be difficult,” says a former Warner Bros. executive. “Too many hats to wear. Something has to give.” They hope.