The Artist’ Is With Major Label But Dodges Clauses

Aleksandrs Rozens




NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ask The Artist Formerly Known As Prince what he thinks of contracts with major recording labels and the restrictions they can impose on his creativity and he will ask you to take pen in hand.

“Write this down: The word c-l-a-u-s-e.” He spells it out for you, adding: “And then put under it c-l-a-w-s. I don’t sign agreements with clauses in them.”

Given his reticence to work with major record labels since his falling out with Warner Bros. Records Inc., fans of the singer/songwriter from Minneapolis once known as Prince will be surprised that his latest album, “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic,” is being released by Arista Records Inc. this week.

It is the first time since 1996, when EMI Records released his “Emancipation” recording, that The Artist, as he is called, has had a major label release his music. The move to Arista has come mainly because The Artist appears comfortable with the label’s founder and chief executive, Clive Davis.

Davis’ label features a stable of rock and pop artists such as the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana and Patti Smith. With Davis, The Artist recalled, his conversation about the new recording was “How many are we releasing? How many will we sell? And, by the way, Clive, I own this.”

Ownership is a key issue for The Artist. Looking from his mid-town hotel room at the New York skyline slipping into a fall evening, he explained that much of his sparring with Warner hinged on ownership of master recordings of his music.

Also, the singer/songwriter said, Warner limited the amount of music he could release. “Warner wanted a record only every 18 months. I could release a record every seven months. I could not record when I wanted to.”

And when one of the label’s best-selling recording artists wanted to release a three-CD set, “they said they don’t want to do this,” he added

Referring to his landmark recording, “Purple Rain,” which may be one of the most acclaimed albums of the 1980s, The Artist complained that while the album continues to sell and get airplay, the royalties he receives remain unchanged 15 years after the multimillion-copy, Grammy-winning record’s release.


’I STILL GET THE SAME MONEY’

“I still get the same money for Purple Rain as I did then.”

A year after his breakup with Warner in 1995, he got his wish to release a three-CD set, entitled “Emancipation,” with EMI.

Over the Internet, another release that included five CDs worth of music entitled “Crystal Ball” was issued directly to the public by his independent company, NPG Records.

“Having the freedom has been his mission and our mission because he is an artist that is so prolific he needs a multi-delivery model to distribute him,” Londell McMillan, his business partner, explained later in a telephone interview.

The Artist’s new recording with Arista features 16 songs including a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” and offers collaborations with rap artists Chuck D. of Public Enemy and Eve of Ruff Ryders. Also, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani and Ani DiFranco stepped in to lend a hand in the studio.

And even though Warner dissolved its contract with The Artist three years ago, it released an album of Prince outtakes titled “The Vault ... Old Friends 4 Sale” this fall. The Artist dismisses the Warner release as simply “a contractual obligation,” but both recordings show the diversity of his songwriting style.

“The Vault ... Old Friends 4 Sale,” is full of jazz inflections, while “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic” offers guitar work reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix.

Asked how many songs he has written that did not reach the public, he said, “Thousands. At least a couple of thousand.”

The sparring with Warner Records came under enormous public scrutiny and The Artist wrote “slave” on his face. “I was making a stance on ownership against long-term contracts,” he said.

But the legal tug-of-war damaged his health. “I started getting sick,” he said, adding that his name change came as a way to escape a period of his life that he looked to jettison. “It is interesting how you can recreate yourself,” he said. “You have to trust God. God’s answer was ’Change your name.”’


’THEY DON’T WANT TO BE THE SAME PERSON’

Then, The Artist reasoned, a name change as a way to dodge one’s past is nothing new in the music world. In fact, it is a regular happening in the world of Hip Hop. “They don’t want to be the same person they were.”

The list of marquee pop music recording artists who have re-christened themselves can get pretty lengthy—Sting, Bono, Madonna, David Bowie — but few dared to do so in mid-career.

Raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, The Artist continues to seek strength in religion.

There are regular readings of the Bible with his bassist, Larry Graham Jr., formerly with Sly & The Family Stone. “We talk about how and why we were made,” he said. “God told us he made us in his image to create. Everything I do is inspired by God.”

He said the readings are “to see where the minefields are and how to avoid them,” but he does not draw directly from the Bible when he pens lyrics. “I don’t read the Bible and write a song.”

Some of the minefield-dodging may be understanding how to avoid pitfalls of the music industry, where larger companies decide which musicians get their work heavily promoted, how to promote it and what fads to adopt. Often the promotion of one recording will be at the cost of another because promotion expenses limit a label’s ability to showcase other artists.

In The Artist’s case, Warner did not want to release too much music material on a regular basis, McMillan said.

“The logic is you do not want to oversaturate the record marketplace. By remaining absent for a time you allow consumer appetites to grow. If that is the logic, it is based more on commercial and business objectives. This creates tension with artists.”


DOES INDUSTRY KNOW WHAT IT IS RELEASING?

“Their creation is this network. I don’t think they know what records they are releasing,” The Artist said of the recording industry. Some of his distaste for the industry’s business practices crop up in “Undisputed,” a song on the latest recording with Arista: “Heavy Rotation never made my world go ’round/Commercialization of the music is what brought it down.”

With his new freedom, there is an optimism that blazes within him. For a moment, at least, there is a sense of how quickly his imagination races when writing or recording a song. Anything seems possible. The ceiling is gone, he said, motioning to the panorama of nighttime New York City. There are new people to meet. There are new songs to write.

There are also concerns that crop up in conversation: The new generation of rap artists have been relying too heavily on sampling previously recorded music. “Kids are just sampling,” he said, adding that music education needs more of a boost. (He has donated money to inner city school music programs).

And then there is continued joy in finding new music on a trip to Morocco with his wife Mayte that had some influence on “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” the first single to be released from “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.”

So even as his latest music is rushed out to record stores with a major recording label, The Artist likes to remind everyone this is not just another entanglement: “I am not signed with them. We are just doing a record together.”