Prince meets the press

The new Prince: open, charming, seemingly normal and courting the media in a big way.

Jon Bream

The reclusive Minneapolis superstar—who has avoided interviews since his career began in 1978—has fed a flurry of media attention over the past several days that peaked Tuesday with a late-night TV performance and may hit a new pinnacle next Thursday when he appears on Oprah Winfrey’s show.

Why the media blitz? “I’ve got a record to sell,” Prince said at an impromptu midnight news conference Tuesday, seven days before the release of his new three-disc “Emancipation.”

Amid declining sales of his records over the past five years, the more important question may be: Is the world ready for a Prince comeback?

“I think it’s about time,” said Boyz II Men singer Nathan Morris, who attended Prince’s show at his Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen.

“It’s the buzz of the industry right now,” KDWB program director Dan Kieley said Wednesday. “Some of the things I heard are possible Number 1 records for Top 40 radio.”

But others are skeptical. Patrick Wilson, manager of Urban Lights Music in St. Paul, said he watched some of the live broadcast and was unimpressed. No one in his record shop was talking about the concert Wednesday.

Wilson predicted that “Emancipation” would not be a big record for his hip-hop and R&B-oriented shop, which he said had not sold a single copy of Prince’s previous release, “Chaos and Disorder.”

Signs of the times

The first sign Tuesday of the new Prince was that the clotheshorse wore the same outfit almost the entire night.

The second sign was that he played a startlingly short second set—a mere 35 minutes, compared with his typical late-night marathons—before excusing himself from the crowd of 200 journalists and several hundred music-biz insiders because, he said, it was his wife’s birthday.

Actually, Prince had to do more interviews, specifically a special for England’s powerful “Top of the Pops” TV show. He was working the minions at Paisley until 3:30 in the morning.

For the fallen superstar, meeting the media is a sign of harder times. He spent two days in Japan doing interviews; he hosted radio programmers from around the country for a question-and-answer session and concert at Paisley Park; he’s given interviews to Rolling Stone, Time, USA Today and the New York Times.

Until Tuesday night, Prince had never held a formal news conference. He wasn’t very formal. He gave direct, thoughtful and often humorous answers, handling himself with the aplomb of a forthcoming but circumspect politician.

A foreign journalist asked him why he still lives in the Twin Cities. Prince responded by saying when he flies over “the green and the lakes” on his way home, “I’m at peace before I land. God put me here. I’ll stay the rest of my life.”

He called music “my best friend and my worst friend,” saying that sometimes he can’t turn it off. He said Mayte, the dancer whom he married Feb. 14, has “completed my soul. I see songs fully now. That’s why they come out quickly.” He said he married her because she was “the first person who never showed me malice.”

What does Mayte call him? He was stumped for a second. “Lots of things,” he said with an impish smile.

What’s his name? “My name is this,” he said holding up a necklace with his glyph.

New York freelance critic Amy Linden, an avowed fan who was covering the “Emancipation Concert” for People magazine, couldn’t help being cynical about Prince’s charming performance.

“You wonder: What’s the catch?” Linden said. “Prince was a cult artist who blew up with ’Purple Rain.’ He’s not mass-market; he’s weird and edgy. He was always an innovator, but there’s a lot of people doing Prince better than Prince right now, like TLC.”

A few years ago, Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn would have stayed up all night to see a Prince concert. Tuesday, he went to bed without even turning on the 40-minute televised performance, and he didn’t think it important enough to spend the money to send a staff writer.

Prince is “not the pulse of the young, active record buyer. His audience is older,” said Hilburn, who is doubtful about the sales potential of the new three-hour CD, priced at $25 or more. “If the album is great, this can change in an instant. That’s the great thing about pop music. But if this doesn’t do it, I don’t think he’s going to get another chance.”

From Babs to The Artist

Even though in 1992 he signed what was touted as the biggest record contract in the business, Prince spent much of the 1990s openly feuding with his label, Warner Bros., for which he has sold more than 100 million recordings since 1978. His last big seller, “Diamonds and Pearls,” was released in 1991; it has sold 2.3 million copies, according to Soundscan, which tracks cash-register sales for the record industry. His seven albums since have sold a combined 3 million, including 1 million for his 1993 symbol album and a mere 98,000 for “Chaos and Disorder,” issued in July.

The essence of the feud was that Prince is too prolific. He wanted to release recordings faster than Warners could market them. He began penciling the word “Slave” on his cheek. Finally this year, Warners ended its contract with Prince.

“The Artist,” as he’s called by those who work with him, has recorded “Emancipation” on his own NPG Records and cut a deal with EMI to manufacture, distribute and market it.

EMI Chairman Charles Koppelman was excited to work with Prince. “Whether you’re dealing with Barbra Streisand—I worked with her for 10 years—or the Artist, they know the way they want their work portrayed and relayed to the public,” Koppelman said after Tuesday’s concert. Koppelman said after Tuesday’s concert. “My job is to help more people be exposed to the wonderful music.”

As the dapper Koppelman, unlit cigar in hand, held court in Paisley’s atrium, he talked of a two-year campaign to market “Emancipation,” based on a plan Prince presented to him seven weeks ago. Koppelman said this was a dramatically different Prince from the one he met six years ago, when Prince was pitching some artists for Koppelman’s then-hot SBK Records (which included Vanilla Ice and Wilson Phillips).

“The video he’s made [for the single ’Betcha By Golly Wow!’ an old Stylistics ballad] is like a Disney movie with people,” Koppelman said. “He’s found peace. He’s very comfortable.”

Taking care of business

Prince’s news conference was staged without any notice between his short concert sets. No tape recorders were allowed as 200 people huddled around him in Paisley’s Studio A; cameras were ordered to be put away after 30 seconds of posing.

He declined to discuss how the themes of sex, religion and love are entwined in his work because that “takes an hour to explain.”

But he did talk about his relationship with Warner Bros., which he now characterizes as fine, adding that “I don’t own Prince’s music. I don’t own [the copyright of] ’Purple Rain.’ I know how to play it"—as he had done just a few minutes before. He said he had no regrets about the past.

Less than an hour later, a telling moment occurred at the end of his short but funky second set (a jam featuring cameos by Doug E. Fresh, Ann Nesby and Joi). Prince seemed to acknowledge that the event was more about business than music.

“November 19th,” he shouted the release date of his CD to the industry crowd. “Don’t y’all let us down. All right?”