Prince’s New Power Party Over? Rock Star Shows Industry How It’s Done

Mark Brown

MILWAUKEE—The lazy take on Prince in recent years was that his best days were behind him.

His sales were down, the media said. His music wasn’t as good as it used to be. His behavior was erratic—the name changes, the record company wars. Game over.

He turned his back on opportunities other performers would sell their souls for. The term “difficult” got slapped on him. Still more jeers from the sidelines.

But the truth is more interesting than the fiction. The man who once was one of the biggest rock stars in the world saw years ago that the music industry couldn’t keep doing business the way it had, so he went directly to his fans online.

And halfway through the most successful tour of 2004, in a summer when almost every other tour is tanking, Prince’s concerts are a virtual coast-to-coast sellout, breaking records in major cities. One Pepsi Center show next week is sold out, and the other is close to it.

His new Musicology album is great and near the top of the charts. All the hot young artists in 2004, from Alicia Keyes to Outkast, bow to him. And it has finally dawned on the record industry that selling music online is the future.

It turns out Prince made the moves everyone else wishes they’d made. While the music industry flounders, Prince flourishes. Does he ever just want to say “I told you so?”

“No!” Prince says, shaking his head firmly, but smiling slightly during a rare interview before a recent concert here. To hear him tell it, no vision was needed, anyway.

“It’s almost like hearing a weather report and knowing it’s going to rain. You can tell people and they either believe you or not.”

Rather, Prince says, he’s disappointed the industry didn’t come along for the ride sooner. His label, Warner Bros. Records, had put great faith in him early in his career, but wavered as the years went on. “It just means they weren’t enlightened enough or had the same faith that I had. If you love somebody, you should always love them.”

The multitalented performer knew when he started this fight when he went after Warner to gain control of the music that had made hundreds of millions of dollars - that it would be a long road.

“You’re just worried how you’re going to get out of this and not look like exactly what I eventually ended up looking like - this spoiled, pampered baby,” Prince says.

But the need to keep his music pure - and Warner’s refusal to release it - left him with no choice. “Before I left Warner Bros., I had a big and successful career in all areas. If they wanna run (a single) up the chart, they’ll do it.”

He couldn’t play that game anymore. “I grew up when albums came out every three or four months. I wanted to make a lot of music.”

And he wanted ownership of the copyrights, but the label balked. “Whoever created it is the owner. Is that even a question?” he says incredulously.

But now, backstage in Milwaukee, he smiles and chats happily about his life and music. “I’m not bitter or mad. You’ve gotta tip your hat” to the music industry, he says, sarcastically, for making so much money off artists’ sweat for so many years. “It worked great for them.”

The man behind the myth

Prince talks in passionate italics and exclamation points, enthused with music and society, far removed from the man of few words you often see in TV interviews, but every bit as intense.

Before the interview he ran an hourlong sound check, personally tweaking the sound on every microphone onstage, including those deep in the saxes of Maceo Parker and Candy Dulfer.

They worked through I Feel For You, Controversy and more Prince classics as he directed sound changes via wireless mike from all over the venue, calling out the changes in precise decibel levels. Much is made of Prince’s perfectionism, but it has its purpose. The sound at the beginning of the check was as good as any concert; by the time he finished, it was like sitting in front of an upscale stereo system.

Fans know that 2004 is anything but a comeback. For years Prince has been productive, more musically accessible than ever, and making more money than ever. He tours regularly and records constantly. He divides his music between pressed CDs (the jazzy NEWS and the latest return to form, Musicology) and online-only discs (The Slaughterhouse and a new classic, Chocolate Invasion). Much of that music is as strong as his best-known work, such as Purple Rain and 1999.

So while it’s not a comeback, Prince has chosen 2004 to be more visible. He has undertaken his most extensive tour in years and grabbed high-profile opportunities he has shunned in the past, including agreeing to open the Grammy Awards after years of requests. He is also sitting for more interviews, including this one. He insists, though, that much of it is out of his control.

“You can’t take anything away from the media. They pick and choose what they want to focus on,” he says. “We’re given pre-packaged pop stars every day. They control who’s on heavy rotation.”

Yet, he notes with satisfaction, “the album’s in the top 10.”

Yes it is, in part because of the controversial way Prince is getting it out - every concert-goer gets a copy of Musicology added to the price of their ticket. That has pushed sales to 1.3 million so far, and Prince makes no apology for it. It gets the music out there without the usual record-company nonsense, and concert-goers for the most part have been thrilled with getting something tangible to take home. It also has stirred debate in the record industry and media.

Billboard and Soundscan have revised their policies to disallow such a tactic, but Musicology is “grandfathered” in and each copy still counts. The album returned to the top 10 again this week.

Prince likes the controversy.

“There’s something a little different now that they have to pay attention to - this bundling situation,” says Prince, who remains indifferent to criticism that it’s artificially inflating his figures. To him, all that matters is getting heard.

“I know it’s getting to people.”

Battling for musical freedom

Prince has been a prolific songwriter, with more than 30 albums in his 26-year career. Does he ever just put down the guitar for days or weeks on end?

“I hear music still, but I spend long periods when I don’t actually play it.” Inspiration comes, but he just retains it. “I was hearing a song today in my head. I’ll be messing with that later.”

It’s not just his own music that entrances him. For years he has sung Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You; last year, he finally released a version on a limited edition of his live album One Night Alone Live!

People ask: “How did Prince get like this? What’s his history?” he says. Besides his obvious funk, soul and rock influences, he figures they should know the more subtle stuff.

“I love all Joni’s music,” he says, adding that he does her songs ’just to keep her name out there. Joni’s music should be taught in school, if just from a literature standpoint.”

The same goes for James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, and Sly Stone. “Take Sly out of time! Bring him back like he’s brand new.”

He laughs a lot these days, but knows he has a serious image when it comes to his music.

“My life got real serious there for a second - getting out of the record industry. You have to realize that I was told I couldn’t leave. Excuse me? What did you say? With the mergers and revolving door of executives, it was like musical chairs or something.”

The fight with Warner (which eventually allowed Prince to leave the label, but he had to leave his classic albums behind) took on guerrilla tactics. Prince famously wrote “slave” on his face and changed his name to a symbol as a protest. He took other tacks as well.

When Warner balked at releasing The Gold Experience in 1995, Prince had his independent publicity firm send the video for the first single, Dolphin, to the press, ensuring that the song would be written about and that the music would leak. Warner caved and the album was released as Prince intended.

Musicology is being distributed by Sony Music, but under a vastly different agreement than he had with Warner. It’s a one-off deal with Prince’s NPG Records; Sony only distributes it. And Prince pockets $7 for every $10 disc sold.

“I’m the content provider, I don’t feel any pressure from them. They don’t have any power over me,” says who has learned a lot from his contract battles.

“Going through 10 years of struggle makes my meetings now with the executives a breeze. They know straight in they’re not owning anything. That’s not even a question,” he says gleefully.

Do other artists come to him for advice? Yes, Prince allows, “but what’s more interesting is when the executives come to me for advice.”

So what does he tell them? “You get the artist you deserve,” he says.

To fix things? “Start from scratch. You like music, right? Me too. Remember when there were these hippies running the business?”

It’s time, he tells executives, to get back to that. “You’re gonna have more fun. You’re gonna make a lot more money.”

“We have more record companies and look at their (failure) rates. They’re trying to make more and more money. We gotta maybe get back to making some good music.”

What infuriates him is watching the industry prey on rappers, bleeding them dry the way they bled bluesmen decades ago, then discarding them. New artists are encouraged to be more outrageous than what came before, to shock for the purpose of making a quick money score.

“They’re taking our kids out of our community and doing it to them. You disenfranchise part of the nation,” he says. “That’s the sad part. What can you say other than arrogance and greed? That’s what you school people on.”

The issues of Prince

Prince always has commented on social issues. On Musicology, the song Dear Mr. Man doesn’t mention anyone by name, but pointedly lays out problems in our nation. On July Fourth, he released The United States of Division via his Web site. It opens: “2004 / still at war / and everybody hates Americans.”

“Look at the reality and the truth,” Prince says. “They’re our supposed ’elected’ officials who are supposed to take care of us. Some people are benefiting, and some aren’t.”

The top 10 percent of the population controls most of the wealth in this country, Prince notes, “and it’s not a rainbow coalition. Don’t get me started on that.”

But start he does. “What is democracy? What does that word mean?” he says with exasperation. He’s also dismissive of those who won’t speak up for fear of retribution. “Don’t dare say anything about it or you’re going to get your CDs smashed. What’s so scary about that?”

Likewise, a thread of spirituality has always run through his work, be it subtle (Let’s Go Crazy, Same December) or more overt (God, The Holy River).

“As you get older, you start to look at it. It’s not even the age-old cliche of ’Why are we here?’ There’s right and wrong. And then there’s the lie, an illusion so powerful people literally live in a collective hallucination. They see walls that aren’t there,” he says. “Sooner or later we have to. . . say ’When did we fall off track here? How are we going to fix this thing?”

His much-discussed path as a Jehovah’s Witness has gotten too much sensationalized coverage, he says; he’s interested in spirituality and answers, not strange ceremonies or theories. “I’m very practical. You go Trekkie on me, I gotta go.”

Prince has made a tentative peace with Warner Bros.; there are rumors of a special edition of Purple Rain in the works. That may be merely wishful thinking; the new DVD of Purple Rain comes out Tuesday with no Prince involvement and thus no substantial upgrade.

An overhaul of his catalog is needed. Warner slapped substandard copies of his music onto CD years ago and has never upgraded them. Prince’s best album 1987’s Sign 0’ the Times, sounds absolutely awful, with fluctuating volume levels and passable but muddy sound. Prince leaps to his feet in agreement when these issues are mentioned.

“Tell them that! We need to bring it up to the industry standard!”

He’d love to see remastered and expanded versions of his work and surround-sound versions of his classics, but with the master tapes in Warner’s hands, he can’t make that happen. “I can go re-record it and put it out - but should I have to?”

As well as looking forward, Prince has spent time looking back. The live show features his hits. Scattered through gigs this year - live and on TV - have been appearances with Prince alumni: Morris Day of the Time, drummer Sheila E, and most strikingly, an acoustic performance on TV with Wendy Melvoin of his most revered backing band, The Revolution.

When asked about that reunion with Melvoin, Prince grows wistful.

“She plays acoustic guitar with me better than almost anyone,” he says quietly. “The opportunity came up and her name was the first to come to mind. I’m looking for things to juice me, too.”