Prince

No artist has battled the music industry quite like Prince. With the help of the Net, no artist has a better chance of winning his war


Bilge Ebiri



Back in August of 1997, well before the world was talking about music on the Internet, Prince—then known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince—made an odd announcement. Recently released from his recording contract with Warner Bros., he declared that he was going to sell Crystal Ball, his upcoming five-CD set (it shrank to four CDs in stores), over the Web. At the time, it was easy to see the move as yet another eccentric twist in the career of a musical maverick. This, after all, was a man who in 1993 had changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol.

Today Prince seems like a visionary, not simply because he was the first major pop star to sell an entire album on the Web, but also because he has devoted so much of his career to fighting the recording companies’ stranglehold on the distribution of music. The name change, for example, wasn’t some kind of bizarre social experiment—it was an effort to outmaneuver Warner Bros., which still retained the rights to recordings made in his name, even after he’d been freed from certain of his contracts. (He also famously scrawled the word slave across his face.) It’s possible now to see these actions for what they were: some of the first shots fired in the war against the recording industry, a war that continues to rage among fans, executives, and artists, with controversies over copyright, Napster, and CD price fixing.

Prince reverted to his original name in May 2000, after his final contract with Warner expired. Now, looking back on his time inside the record-industry juggernaut, he is by turns indignant and reflective. But more important, as the patron saint of wired artists, he continues to push the boundaries of technology and art. At the beginning of the year, he released two free downloadable songs on his site, NPG Online Ltd. In February, he launched a fee-based subscription service called the NPG Music Club, offering fans three new downloadable singles every month. And in April, he announced that he would release a new track, “The Work—Part 1,” on Napster.

Naturally, it also helps to be as prolific as Prince. Rumors still circulate that he has hundreds upon hundreds of unreleased songs in his private vaults. That all adds up to an unlimited supply of content—"the fuel,” as he called it during his conversation with Y-Life at his Paisley Park studios in the outskirts of Minneapolis. And content, as a Prince would know, is king.

Y-LIFE: You’ve been very outspoken against the music industry, going so far as to change your name and write slave on your face in protest.

PRINCE: I don’t have any hate for these people. Ultimately, what people don’t know is what they end up focusing on and misunderstanding. If I’m changing my name and writing on my face, they assume I’m crazy. And then they’ll say that I’m not capable of distributing my own materials.

My first Warner Bros. contract was huge—full of terms, restrictions, that sort of thing. We need to stay out of the way of that. If it’s the music business, then the musician should get the lion’s share. And when artists figure that out, there’ll be an uprising. Right now, if you resist their kind of thinking, what do they do? They’ll kick you out to the curb.

Y-LIFE: Aren’t all industries like that, to a certain extent?

PRINCE: At least in the movies, a successful actor can get $20 million. It’s not like that in the music business. Destiny’s Child brought in $93 million last year. How much do you think they themselves actually got? It’s totally unequal.
Record executives will say, “Destiny’s Child made $93 million last year.” You ask them, “Why did Destiny’s Child themselves only get $4 million of that money?” I mean, have you heard Beyoncé sing? Puh-leeze! She ain’t even 20, and she’s got a voice like that! Let’s kick it up to $30 million. Is that fair? They won’t answer. They’ll say, “You don’t understand....”

When you talk to record executives, you’ll hear an arrogance that’s astounding. They’re under the assumption that artists don’t know the way the industry works. Sheryl Crow has this saying; she refers to people as having “no Midwestern common sense.” So they’ll say something like, “We have 85 percent failure expectations on new acts,” meaning they expect the vast majority of them to fail. You’ve got 85 percent failure expectations, and you’re signing them to long-term agreements? “Well, they might not fail.” What does that mean? This system makes $40 billion a year. And it’s all based on this type of logic.

Y-LIFE: Why don’t more artists resist the record industry, then?

PRINCE: You saw The Matrix, right? The person in that predicament doesn’t know where he is. It’s a collective hallucination. The key is if you put people in a financial bind, and spread it around, they won’t be able to resist. This whole country was based on division. All the way back in [the album] Controversy, I was trying to break from the hallucination. People said, “This is what’s hittin’ now, Prince.” But I wasn’t paying attention to that. Duke Ellington never changed. Miles Davis never changed. Their work is intact. The companies are great at distributing, but they’re not creators. They shouldn’t be the ones to take my work into the 22nd century.

Y-LIFE: When one looks at musicians who have truly embraced the Net, it’s the veterans, people who have been around for a while: you, David Bowie, Pete Townshend. What’s that all about?

PRINCE: Because when you’re a new, young act and start getting a buzz, you get approached by people with a pen and an agenda. They start right away taking pieces of you. All I can say to young artists is know that you’re the genesis of what comes from you. You have to keep your masters [recordings]. The record executives say, “We own the masters.” I ask them, “Where are they?” And I’ll just look right at them. You know, the way Norm MacDonald will tell a joke and then just look at you? I love that! (Laughs) Steven Wright, too, does that. But imagine—this is the kind of standoff I’ll have with a grown man.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Lenny Kravitz. His deal’s about up. And he’s going to get a big carrot dangled in front of him any day now. They’ll give you a choice: “You can own all the recordings, or you can be a star.” But are you a star if you’re broke? Let’s watch what happens with Lenny. If I want to speak out against that collective hallucination, I’m not a part of it. I did one record on my own, and that’s all it took. Let Lenny Kravitz do one record on his own, and see if he ever goes back.

Y-LIFE: Why, exactly, do you think the recording industry is so corrupt?

PRINCE: Let’s look at it. I mean, really look at it. It’s in the Bible, which I’ve started reading recently. Why does a person go against his Creator? In the beginning, we have a very simple story in the garden. God tells Adam and Eve, “You have everything you need.” And they begin to think they can create as well. Examine that story. Now, there’s somebody else in that garden, isn’t there?

In every situation, you have one person who initiates, one who benefits, and one who resists all of it. And some people are happy being in every one of those categories.

Y-LIFE: What’s your position on Napster?

PRINCE: I always ask people, “Are you pro- or anti-Napster?” Now, the record companies see Napster as troublesome. Napster is a mirror. How you see Napster says more about you than it does about Napster. The fans visiting Napster, they would want everything the artist puts out. They wouldn’t want to pay for it. What’s up with that?

But the same goes for the recording industry. How you see the recording industry says more about you and your priorities than it does about the recording industry. Napster was inevitable—a file-sharing program that allowed the user to be a part of the process—especially given the general arrogance of the music industry as a whole. I mean, $18 a CD. Where are they getting that? The production costs aren’t going up, that’s for sure. People are getting hip to that. This is a wonderful time, because everything is shifting. Everybody can be an artist—and there are good and bad consequences to that. But people who control their own work will succeed. Look at Bill Gates. The man is unstoppable. He never sold out. He never sold the rights to his software.

Y-LIFE: Have you ever used Napster?

PRINCE: No. Of course, I’ve had people go on to see if they’ve got our stuff, and they definitely did. Now, NPG Music Club is a subscription club. If the songs we put up on the club end up on Napster, is that copyright infringement?

Y-LIFE: You asked your fans that same question on the site. What do you think?

PRINCE: I’m asking you. The record industry said that Napster caused them to flat-line. Are you pro- or anti-Napster?

Y-LIFE: Personally, I’m pro.

PRINCE: Now, why is that? That’s interesting.

Y-LIFE: I discovered more new music through Napster last year, and I bought the CDs. I’ve paid for more music last year than I’ve ever done, thanks to Napster. And I think people will still buy CDs; we like objects.

PRINCE: Do you think individuals who spend all day on the computer will care about CDs? I’m trying to see if I can sway your opinion. How many users does Napster have—60 million? Do you think all those people are buying their CDs?

Y-LIFE: Probably not.

PRINCE: See, there you go! Now we’re coming to some kind of agreement. I’m not pro- or anti-anything. I just sit back and watch the whole thing. We’ve got an institution here at Paisley that cares for the artist. And that’s the way it should be.

I’ve spoken to Shawn Fanning. He’s just a kid. It’s a real shame what has happened to him. He’s in a lot of tough water. He’s scared. When Fanning got up onstage at the MTV awards, the audience started cheering and booing. First they were booing Metallica; now they were booing him. And he’s thinking, “Why did this happen to me?” If I was worried about booing, I’d think I had to change. So you sign up with one side or the other. And Napster, BMG—these people aren’t musicians. Shawn knows the deal. [A month after this interview was conducted, Prince reached an agreement with Napster to release a new track from an upcoming album on the file-sharing service. —Ed.]

Y-LIFE: Can the Napster-BMG deal eventually work?

PRINCE: Probably. Why not? The recording industry works. That doesn’t mean it’s just, or right, or fair. But it’s not up to me to damn somebody or something. It’s in the nature of their actions to damn themselves. When was the last time the recording industry gave anything back to the community? It’s a pity that there actually has to be such a thing as the Rhythm & Blues Foundation [a not-for-profit group dedicated to fostering recognition of and support for R&B music]. This industry makes $40 billion a year—$40 billion! Can we have $1 billion? Just $1 billion, to put back into our communities and help rebuild them?

Y-LIFE: But some would say that running a business is a lot different from making music.

PRINCE: I care for artists. I care for where Bonnie Raitt gets her heart from. You want to improve the production of tennis programs on TV? Let’s ask Serena and Venus Williams what they think. I’m sure they’re full of ideas. I know—I’ve asked them. When Kobe Bryant does a 360 and dunks it, that’s creation. Let’s let that dictate.

Y-LIFE: In February, you started the NPG Music Club on your site, a paid subscription service that allows fans to receive new songs from you every month. Was the club an alternative, or a response, to the Napster controversy?

PRINCE: Napster had nothing to do with the NPG Music Club. Anybody who has followed my career knows how much technology has meant to me. When it was three o’clock in the morning, and I’d try to get [Revolution drummer] Bobby Z to come out to the studio, sometimes he’d come, sometimes he wouldn’t. But I’ve had this Roger Linn drum machine since 1981. It’s one of the first drum machines ever created. It takes me five seconds to put together a beat on this thing. So from the very start, technology gave me a direct result for my efforts. I’m a very simple person. If somebody wants my music, I’ll give it to them.

Y-LIFE: Don’t you worry that if your music is distributed only on the NPG Music Club, you’ll lose potential new listeners?

PRINCE: Why would a 13-year-old be at my concerts? There’re tons of them there. One night I asked them, “How many of y’all have seen me before?” Half of them cheered. “How many have never seen me before?” The other half cheered. So I see how this is going. Somebody old brings somebody new. Things get passed down—it’s like oral history, the way it’s supposed to be. Like you and me talking right now. I’ve wanted to have a direct one-on-one with people for a long time. If you see the Net as a tool to eliminate the middleman, you define it. And that reflects your personality. You get in and say, “I want to use it to get to more people"—that says something about you as well.

NPG audio gives you something new. We’ve called the NPGMC “the experience for those who know better.” Because right now, if you listen to the radio, all you’ll hear is packaged pop stars. Sometimes I want to ask those people, “Do you even know a D-minor chord? Come here, play one. Good. Now step away, please. There’s nothing to see here.” (Laughs)

Y-LIFE: Earlier this year, you released two songs through your site as free downloads, calling it an “Xperiment in honor” and asking fans who profited from it to kick back some of those profits to you. How has the experiment worked?

PRINCE: (Laughs) It worked just like we thought it would. And that’s all I’m saying about that! One of the reasons why we thought a club would be necessary is because we wanted to see how fast the music would replicate itself. And it’s just incredible. It’s ultimately a question of what music should be. Who should it benefit? It should benefit the creator. Ani DiFranco owns all her music.

My friend Larry Graham likes to say, “If you’ve got a cake pan that’s dented, and you keep cooking cakes in it, then you’re going to keep getting cakes with dents in them.” When I do deals with record companies now, they’re with people. And they’re small. “I’ve got some music. You want it? You make some copies and give me my tapes back.”

Y-LIFE: Will you still release albums from now on, or stay digital?

PRINCE: I’ll probably release albums, but what’s cool about the club is that the shows and the tracks change every month. So if you go in every month, you’ll get to storehouse all these tracks, and by the end of the year you’ll have enough for maybe three albums. I could probably release five to seven albums every year if I wanted to-polished stuff that I’m really happy with. But the market can’t deal with that. So this seemed like a natural alternative.

Y-LIFE: How did you first get online?

PRINCE: Instantly, the thing that attracted me to the Net was the idea that I could reach a lot of people without going through a matrix. Unfortunately, the Net is a reflection of what’s going on in the world. School shootings, things like that. It reflects that kind of violence. That’s why I don’t live there. Here in Paisley, it’s a very isolated environment. You can’t just see all that pornography and deceit and mendacity all the time. That’s what the world has become. There are pockets of beauty out there still, though.

Y-LIFE: Where are those pockets of beauty on the Net?

PRINCE: That’s a tough one. I’m not one to judge what is beautiful. I do know what isn’t beautiful. Everybody’s a critic. People are flaming each other without any knowledge of the effect it has on others—the kind of physical, psychological effect it has on them.

Y-LIFE: Have you been in chatrooms devoted to your work?

PRINCE: A couple of times—not much. When I first started, I tried one time to unify a group splintered by whether I was still “funky” or not. That question still goes on, obviously. But what ended up happening was that I got a webmaster out of it—Sam Jennings, who runs the NPG site out of Chicago. But I guess what I find beautiful on the Internet is wherever I find agreement. That’s beautiful even to people who are full of hate.

Y-LIFE: Don’t we need disagreement before we can have agreement?

PRINCE: I believe people of like mind will agree. This’ll sound like a cliché, but people need to be under a creator. Clive Davis doesn’t want to take any direction from me. Should he? You tell me. Is this the music industry? All the musicians, please stand up. Miles Davis and Duke Ellington went to school for music. They learned how to create; they became seasoned performers. Now they pop these kids out like it’s nothing. And the record executives say, “We love music.” You love music? You can’t even tap your foot on the two and the four.

Y-LIFE: There was a quote on your site recently, saying “Beyoncé can sang!” Was that from you?

PRINCE: The tidbits of information on the site don’t come from me. Sometimes people will ask me a question, and I’ll give them a quote. My end is shipping out the music. But it’s evident that Destiny’s Child is an industry act. We want to keep the focus on why they’re successful. And that’s because of the people in the group, not because of the label and the marketing. That’s why you’ll see tidbits like that, about Beyoncé and other performers. The people that are here at Paisley with me—we’re all like-minded. They stay free—and free means free. And that’s what the club is about. It’s a haven for anybody who’s got their music and is free. We’re all very down-to-earth. No matter what the press likes to write about me.

Y-LIFE: So what kind of Web sites do you like to visit?

PRINCE: I go to the educational ones. I like to study history—especially Egyptian history. I don’t want to start endorsing any sites right now, but I like the ones that go back the furthest. ’Cause I’m interested in how we got in this predicament in the first place. You can talk about symptoms all day long. But I like to talk about solutions.