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Prince on the Web Like It's 1999
Just in time for the post-Napster world, the eccentric purple one has unveiled a new music subscription site. Does his NPG Music Club have the funk to lead artists into revolution?
by Warren Cohen

Friday, March 30 12:12 P.M.

CHANHASSEN, Minn. -- ''These ones is hot,'' says Prince, handing me a CD-R with four neatly handprinted song titles on the front case. ''If you're riding around with a girl who wants to hear them, pop them in and you're straight.'' In a studio console room decorated with two small purple sofas and illuminated by a fiber-optic tree light whose branches continuously morph into rainbow colors, the artist formerly known as the Artist but once again known as Prince spins around on his chair. ''Tell people this is the best stuff since he changed his name back,'' he says, chuckling.

At 42, Prince may no longer be the amazing triple threat he once was, writing era-defining songs, releasing big movies and partying like it's 1999. But here in a Minneapolis suburb, sequestered in his Paisley Park recording studio complex that resembles nothing more than a giant White Castle restaurant, he says he has a new ''clarity of spirit.'' The songs on the CD he proudly displays will soon be uploaded to his brand-new Web endeavor, the NPG Music Club, which launched in February as the place where the most devoted fans can download Prince's latest harmonies for a monthly fee. It's just one of Prince's five Web sites and part of his larger technological entrepreneurialism. ''All my Web sites are steps to the NPG Music Club,'' says Prince. ''One begat the other, as creation is supposed to do.''

There may be no limit to how many Web sites Prince ultimately starts or how many songs he releases (an associate says he has a backlog of 30 years of recorded music). That's because he only has to answer to himself after a much-publicized 1990's break with Warner Music over artistic control and ownership rights to his master recordings. Back then, he scrawled the word ''slave'' on his cheek in public and changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph in an effort to make himself unmarketable. His music suffered, too: he dismisses some of the Warner records sold on his Web sites with a warning: ''Contractual Obligation.'' Today, Prince uses technology to market his music. ''When you're born into slavery, every child dreams to go the great provider and have him provide,'' he says. ''But I'm the creator of the product and I'm dictating the terms.''

His anti-record-establishment stance always seemed a bit out of sync with most musicians, who don't think twice about surrendering their copyrights to the labels in exchange for the industry's marketing muscle and the long-shot chance for stardom. Today, Prince doesn't seem so much an iconoclast as a grandfather to a growing movement. The digital world allows an artist to market directly to fans, and ownership of bona fide top-drawer material is proving ever more lucrative in a world saturated with sub-par entertainment. Witness the sale by EMI in the last four months of nearly 7 million copies of 1, an anthology of Beatles songs that most fans already own.

Given that the music industry's practice of owning masters is out of step with other creative industries -- authors, for example, grant only temporary publishing rights for their books and retain ownership -- musicians' concerns about controlling the music seem to be gaining steam. Courtney Love has a lawsuit against Universal Music over a long-term record deal that strips her of her recording copyrights while allegedly underpaying her royalties. Since five labels account for nearly 90 percent of music sales, Love says there is nowhere else to go to get a better offer.

In November 1999, Congress passed an industry-backed amendment to prevent musicians from recovering their rights to sound recordings after a period of 35 years. But intense lobbying from stars like Sheryl Crow and Don Henley got the law reversed last year. And leading lawmakers like Senator Orrin Hatch, an improbably hep legislator when it comes to digital entertainment, are warning the record labels that they need to do more to license music to digital start-ups -- thus achieving the goal of copyright law, which is to provide incentives to circulate creative works. And if they don't, Congress could write legislation making such dissemination mandatory -- a music industry version of the TV industry's must-carry rules for TV broadcasters and cable channels. That's fine with Prince, who has fought this battle first-hand. ''Intellectual property is being stolen every day, 24-7, and it must cease now,'' he says. ''I'm the creator. From nothing I can make something. And all I get is a statement of royalty? Do you hear the irony?''

While there is a shady history to record contracts, most artists today have a SWAT team of lawyers and managers to look out for their interests. ''Nobody is pulling artists kicking and screaming to sign with a major label,'' says Hilary Rosen, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America. ''But if you want to sell 10 million records, your manager will advise you to sign with a major.''

Prince's conflict with Warner began when he wanted to release more than one CD a year. Warner balked. The tug-of-war took place amid his declining sales. In the mid-1990's, his records sold under half a million copies, down from his string of million sellers. Rumors circulated that Prince's career might be over. Prince got permission from Warner to release his own single, 1994's ''The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,'' which became one of the year's top songs, emboldening Prince to go solo. He tried to break free of his contract but served out his recording obligation to Warner.

BIRTH OF A SALESMAN
On his own, Prince tapped into tech -- selling a CD-ROM in 1994 featuring interactive videos. He launched a site, Newfunk.com, to augment his mail-order business. In one of his giant sound studios in Paisley Park, which resembles a gym, he has 60-foot risers packed with boxes of CDs and merchandise like Rave keychains and New Power Generation baseball hats ready for sale.

Running his own record business with just 10 employees hasn't been so easy. In 1998, Prince released Crystal Ball, a 3-, 4- or 5-disk set, depending on where it was bought. Though he promised it first to fans who paid upfront via the Internet, two retail chains also carried it. Some fans were angry when they saw their exclusive in stores before it had been mailed to them. The premium collection came in a clear plastic circular case; Prince put all the album liner notes online. He says he sold 250,000 copies and more than half were direct sales. He believes he made more money selling to the public than he could have if a major label sold a million more copies. ''I've heard that argument, that a little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing,'' he says, ''but that's slave talk.''

Without a major label, though, there is no marketing and publicity machine to pay for radio ads, call station programming directors to beg them to play the songs or entice retailers to give the album prime store placement. That's one reason Prince signed a one-record marketing and distribution deal with Arista for his last album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. The CD sold 471,000 copies, a respectable showing with no radio hit. And Arista had no control over masters.

Prince is much more optimistic about the prospects for his new music club. The consummate marketer, he wears a chocolate-brown pirate shirt that says ''New Power Generation,'' while letters attached to the cuffs of his pant legs spell ''Music'' and ''Club.''

While many admire his Web creativity, Prince is a bit hard to locate with so many different sites (none of them using Prince in the address). ''To create a brand new name or identity on the Web is next to impossible,'' says Mark Weiss, CEO of MusicVision, a company that designs and hosts artist Web sites. ''There is also a law of diminishing returns, where Prince is diluting himself. He's almost too creative.''

So far, no online music club has captured many subscribers, though artists like Todd Rundgren, David Bowie and Elton John have been trying. Prince is depending on his fans. ''If more and more people support this, the sky is the limit as to what Prince will make available,'' says Sam Jennings, Prince's webmaster.

Despite his Web savvy, Prince isn't fond of technology. He may in fact be a bit of a technophobe. He rarely checks e-mail and never carries a cell phone. (''Most of my pants don't have pockets,'' he says.) And he believes that the unfettered Web promotes divisiveness, not communication. That's why his employees edit all negative comments posted on his site's message boards.

GROOVE IS IN THE ART
He is similarly unenthusiastic about Napster, which doesn't yet pay artists. And he says that Napster's partnership with Bertelsmann means that the site will end up as a mere tool of the major labels. While he believes that sites like the NPG Music Club can be Napsters for individual artists, he can't offer his own classics because they're owned by Warner. And in one of his recent Web posts he mused on whether he should sue Napster for copyright infringement.

To the major labels, Prince's comparative obscurity today represents the folly of artists who think they can survive without the record industry. Label executives bring him up whenever someone suggests that the Internet might enable an artists' revolution. Typical is this remark of one major label official: ''Prince (is) an example of someone who took their career from the toilet to the cesspool.'' Other assessments are only a bit milder, pointing out that Prince's freewheeling funk is out of touch with today's hip-hop and teen pop. ''His records don't really connect with an audience, which is the problem with Prince at this point of his career,'' says another major label executive.

Prince professes to be unfazed by such insults. He can live with the incongruities of being a worldwide superstar living in Minnesota, a technophobe who is a digital music pioneer. ''My standard of living has never been better,'' he says. ''People are under the collective hallucination that you have to sell X amount of records to be a success. Don't say that to me because I can't be lied to.''

This article appeared in [Inside] magazine.