The Once and Future Prince - From the New York Times
Iâ€™VE got lots of money!â€ Prince exults in â€œThe One U Wanna C,â€ a come-on from his new album, â€œPlanet Earthâ€ (Columbia). Thereâ€™s no reason to disbelieve him. With a sponsorship deal here and an exclusive show there, worldwide television appearances and music given away, Prince has remade himself as a 21st-century pop star. As recording companies bemoan a crumbling market, Prince is demonstrating that charisma and the willingness to go out and perform are still bankable. He doesnâ€™t have to go multiplatinum â€” heâ€™s multiplatform.
Although Prince declined to be interviewed about â€œPlanet Earth,â€ he has been highly visible lately. His career is heading into its third decade, and he could have long since become a nostalgia act. Instead he figured out early how to do what he wants in a 21st-century music business, and clearly what he wants is to make more music. Despite his flamboyant wardrobe and his fixation on the color purple, his career choices have been savvy ones, especially for someone so compulsively prolific.
Like most pop stars, he goes on major tours to coincide with album releases, which for Prince are frequent. But he also gets out and performs whenever he chooses. Last year he took over a club in Las Vegas and renamed it 3121, after his 2006 album â€œ3121,â€ which briefly hit No. 1 and spawned multiple conflicting theories about the significance of the number. He started playing there twice a week for 900 people at $125 a ticket. In February he had an audience in the millions as the halftime entertainment for the Super Bowl. He has gone on to play well-publicized shows at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood for a few hundred people paying $3,121 per couple, and another elite show last weekend in East Hampton for about $3,000 per person.
Meanwhile Verizon put Prince in commercials that use â€œGuitar,â€ another song from â€œPlanet Earth,â€ as bait for its V Cast Song ID service, making the song a free download to certain cellphones. On July 7 Prince introduced a perfume, 3121, by performing at Macyâ€™s in Minneapolis.
In Britain he infuriated retailers by agreeing to have a newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, include the complete â€œPlanet Earthâ€ CD in copies on July 15. (The album is due for American release this Tuesday.) Presumably The Mail paid him something in the range of what he could have earned, much more slowly, through album sales. British fans have remunerated him in other ways. On Aug. 1 he starts a string of no fewer than 21 sold-out arena concerts, 20,000 seats each, at the O2 (formerly the Millennium Dome) in London at the relatively low ticket price of Â£31.21, about $64. The O2 ticket price also includes a copy of the album; Prince did the same thing with his tour for â€œMusicologyâ€ in 2004. Those â€œMusicologyâ€ albums were counted toward the pop charts, which then changed their rules; the â€œPlanet Earthâ€ albums will not be. But fans will have the record.
Princeâ€™s priorities are obvious. The main one is getting his music to an audience, whether itâ€™s purchased or not. â€œPrinceâ€™s only aim is to get music direct to those that want to hear it,â€ his spokesman said when announcing that The Mail would include the CD. (After the newspaper giveaway was announced, Columbia Recordsâ€™ corporate parent, Sony Music, chose not to release â€œPlanet Earthâ€ for retail sale in Britain.) Other musicians may think that their best chance at a livelihood is locking away their music â€” impossible as that is in the digital era â€” and demanding that fans buy everything they want to hear. But Prince is confident that his listeners will support him, if not through CD sales then at shows or through other deals.
This is how most pop stars operate now: as brand-name corporations taking in revenue streams from publishing, touring, merchandising, advertising, ringtones, fashion, satellite radio gigs or whatever else their advisers can come up with. Rare indeed are holdouts like Bruce Springsteen who simply perform and record. The usual rationale is that hearing a U2 song in an iPod commercial or seeing Shakiraâ€™s face on a cellphone billboard will get listeners interested in the albums that these artists release every few years after much painstaking effort.
But Prince is different. His way of working has nothing to do with scarcity. In the studio â€” he has his own recording complex, Paisley Park near Minneapolis â€” he is a torrent of new songs, while older, unreleased ones fill the archive he calls the Vault. Prince apparently has to hold himself back to release only one album a year. Heâ€™s equally indefatigable in concert. On the road he regularly follows full-tilt shows â€” singing, playing, dancing, sweating â€” with jam sessions that stretch into the night. It doesnâ€™t hurt that at 49 he can still act like a sex symbol and that his stage shows are unpredictable.
Through it all he still aims for hit singles. Although he has delved into all sorts of music, his favorite form is clearly the four-minute pop tune full of hooks. But his career choices donâ€™t revolve around squeezing the maximum return out of a few precious songs. Theyâ€™re about letting the music flow.
Prince gravitated early to the Internet. Even in the days of dial-up he sought to make his music available online, first as a way of ordering albums and then through digital distribution. (He was also ahead of his time with another form of communication: text messaging abbreviations, having long ago traded â€œyouâ€ for â€œU.â€) Where the Internet truism is that information wants to be free, Princeâ€™s corollary is that music wants to be heard.
How much he makes from his various efforts is a closely guarded secret. But heâ€™s not dependent on royalties trickling in from retail album sales after being filtered through major-label accounting procedures. Instead someone â€” a sponsor, a newspaper, a promoter â€” pays him upfront, making disc sales less important. Which is not to say that heâ€™s doing badly on that front: â€œ3121â€ sold about 520,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and â€œMusicology,â€ with its concert giveaways, was certified multiplatinum.
Prince ended a two-decade contract with Warner Brothers Records in 1996 after a very public falling out with the label. During the mid-1990s he appeared with the word â€œSlaveâ€ painted on his face and said the label was holding back material he wanted to release. For a while he dropped the name Prince â€” which was under contract to Warner Brothers and Warner/Chappell Music â€” for an unpronounceable glyph; when the contracts ran out, he was Prince again. And since leaving Warner Brothers he has been independent. He owns his recordings himself, beginning with a three-CD set called â€œEmancipationâ€ from 1996. He has released albums on his own NPG label and Web site or has licensed them, one by one, for distribution by major labels, presumably letting them compete for each title. Over the past decade he has had albums released through EMI, Arista, Universal and Sony.
The idea behind long-term recording contracts is that a label will invest in building a career. But Prince (in part because of Warner Brothersâ€™ promotion) has been a full-fledged star since the â€™80s. So now a labelâ€™s main job for him is to get the CDs into stores.
Prince also experimented with having fans subscribe directly to receive his music online, which turned out to be a better idea in theory than in execution. After five years he quietly shut down his NPG Music Club in 2006. Still, his Web site (which is now 3121.com) usually has a rare recording or two for streaming or downloading. Why not? Thereâ€™s plenty more.
â€œPlanet Earthâ€ is a good but not great Prince album. Unlike â€œ3121,â€ which built many of its tracks around zinging, programmed electronic sounds, â€œPlanet Earthâ€ sounds largely handmade, even retro. â€œIn this digital age you could just page me,â€ Prince sings in â€œSomewhere Here on Earth,â€ a slow-motion falsetto ballad. â€œI know itâ€™s the rage but it just donâ€™t engage me like a face-to-face.â€
Prince, as usual, is a one-man studio band â€” drums, keyboards, guitars, vocals â€” joined here and there by a horn section or a cooing female voice. This time he leans toward rock rather than funk. Serious songs begin and end the album. It starts with â€œPlanet Earth,â€ an earnest environmental piano anthem with an orchestral buildup, and winds up with the devout â€œLion of Judahâ€ and with â€œResolution,â€ an antiwar song. In between, Prince flirts a lot, playing hard-to-get as he rocks through â€œGuitarâ€ (â€œI love you baby, but not like I love my guitarâ€) and promising sensual delights in the upbeat â€œOne U Wanna Câ€ and the slow-grinding â€œMr. Goodnight.â€ Thereâ€™s also a catchy, nutty song about a model, â€œChelsea Rodgers,â€ whoâ€™s both hard-partying and erudite; Prince sings that she knows about how â€œRome was chillinâ€™ in Carthage in 33 B.C.E.â€
Although Columbia probably thinks otherwise, how the album fares commercially is almost incidental. With or without the CD business, Prince gets to keep making music: in arenas, in clubs, in the studio. Fans buy concert tickets, companies rent his panache, pleasure is shared. Itâ€™s a party that can go on a long time.