The Artist ready to reconcile with industry

Steve Jones




NEW YORK—Two years after severing ties to the record industry, The Artist is considering dipping a toe back into it—but only on a limited basis and only if it’s on his terms.

Since leaving Warner Bros. in 1995 and ending a distribution deal with now-defunct EMI Records in 1997, The Artist has successfully marketed a constant stream of music via the Internet and other avenues.

But he’s hoping to put out his next album—Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic—on a major label as long as he retains ownership of the master tapes.

“The title track is one I did 12 years ago, but it sounded so much like Kiss that I wanted to put it in the vault and let it marinate for a while,” he says, holding court in a suite in the Trump International hotel.

He hasn’t decided on a release date but says the album will include some surprising collaborations—and, for the first time in his 21-year career, he’ll let somebody else produce him, although he won’t say who.

“This business is really structured and rigid, and I had to get outside of it to see things differently and to see the effect it has on your psyche,” he says of possibly working again with the companies he fought so hard to get away from.

“Now it’s like going back to school and knowing that you don’t have to stay.”

Not that he’s about to get himself back into the situation that had him writing “slave” on his face during his battle to get out of his contract with Warner Bros.

“This is the best time of my life,” he says. “It’s like the awakening you get when you are at the top of the mountain looking down instead of being on the side or at the bottom and not seeing everything. Record companies expect artists to lose their voice, their hair and their energy, and I’m not doing any of that.”

The 40-year-old vegan, whose Web site (love4oneanother.com) mixes commentary on the industry, race relations, spiritualism and a wide range of other topics, is a crusader for artists’ rights.

Though his albums sell only a fraction of the multiplatinum numbers he once did with the likes of 1999, Purple Rain and Sign ’O’ the Times, his direct-marketing approach through his NPG Records gives him a much fatter profit margin.

He sold 250,000 copies (at $50 a pop) of the five-CD vault-scouring collection Crystal Ball without the benefit of video or radio play but didn’t have to share the profit with a record company or have to wait months to get royalty payments.

“It only costs $2 to press a CD, and then people will go to the store and pay $13,” he says. “Our only additional cost is the shipping. And then most of my money goes into helping other artists.”

Good friends and R&B legends Larry Graham (GCS 2000) and Chaka Khan (Come 2 My House), who were featured on his New Power Soul album last year, put out some of their best work in years on NPG, and The Artist gave them free use of his studios and full ownership of the albums. He says recording contracts aren’t even necessary.

“If we did have one, what would it say? That I agree to pay you on time?”

He says he tried unsuccessfully to buy the rights to his 26 Warner Bros. albums, but he’s doing everything he can to cash in on his previous work.

“Once Warners refused to sell me my masters, I was faced with a problem,” he says. “But ’pro’ is the prefix of problem, so I decided to do something about it.”

The first step was February’s 1999—The New Master, seven re-creations to compete with the classic version of his 1983 song, which will obviously be getting an inordinate amount of attention this year. This fall, he’s releasing a seven-CD collection of samples of his vintage songs that DJs and recording artists can use without paying clearance fees.

He says he never liked the fact that people who had nothing to do with his music profited whenever it was sampled.

“I had former managers coming to me, wanting money, when Hammer did Pray because he sampled When Doves Cry. They said it was in the contract I’d had with them.”

He says other artists can follow his lead in using the Internet and other technology to create an alternative system that will put more money in their pockets and keep them from paying the “slew of managers, executives, radio DJs and promotion people that they have to go through now.”

But even with that freedom, he still has to stay vigilant. In February, he sued nine Web sites for copyright and trademark infringements, saying they were offering bootleg records and unauthorized downloads. He also sued Swedish publisher Uptown Productions, charging it with unauthorized use of photographs and the unpronounceable symbol to which he changed his name from Prince in 1993, as well as the unauthorized sale of biographies and a CD-ROM.

“Telling people where to buy and sell bootlegs and using my symbols is diminishing our own sales,” he says. “We are not seeking damages so much as we just want them to stop. A fanzine is one thing, but when they are actually trying to sell your work, that is something else.