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By Maggie LaMaack
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By Jesse Marx
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The artist-to-consumer site at www.npgmusicclub.com was launched on February 13. The stated goal is to cut out the recording industry as middle man, so Prince can produce what he wants, when he wants, and reap the benefits directly (Prince has said The Rainbow Children will first be made available on the site). Besides promoting Prince's music, past and present, the site touts other entirely independent ventures, such as Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records. "You know she's the real thing," Prince said of DiFranco in Gotham. "Ani said blow up MTV, kill CNN and NBC. She's like Morpheus in The Matrix. She stays outside and that gives her power. She's an inspiration. The Music Club is an energy. We start the motion with music, but it moves to politics, to anywhere you want."
Scot Fisher, DiFranco's personal manager and president of Righteous Babe Records, is thrilled. "Every place you turn, there are fewer independent record stores, fewer promoters, fewer independent journalists who are willing to take a stand," says Fisher. "The stranglehold the majors have on the industry could be loosened if people like Prince go into it."
Indeed, few music critics would argue about Prince's view of the record industry. As Request editor Jim Meyer puts it, "The music business is a cesspool." Greedy and shortsighted, it's run by number crunchers more interested in the bottom line than in promoting good work or finding fresh talent. For the past several years, hungry conglomerates have essentially taken to throwing things at the wall to see what will stick. If an artist hits the charts out of the gate, great. If not, move on to next. Contracts are typically structured so that when a band succeeds, labels reap a lion's share of the benefits. Bands that fail commercially are typically left out in the cold, often indebted to the labels for everything from tour costs to studio expenses. Even established artists can get bitten. (While this piece was in the works, Prince had an assistant fax City Pages a story about the Dixie Chicks, who are being sued by Sony Music Entertainment. In a story about the band on 60 Minutes II this past fall, Dan Rather estimated the Chicks had generated at least $200 million in album sales, while band member Emily Robison complained that she had less than a million dollars in the bank. "Tell me where this money goes," she said to Rather. When the Dixie Chicks tried to leave the label this month, Sony sued and filed an injunction to prevent the band from signing with anyone else.)
Prince also believes artists should be allowed to retain ownership of their master recordings, something major labels have traditionally been loath to give up. "The people in the business take those rights and tell you that you can have them back in another 15 years, and that's just retarded," he said to reporters in June. "Then they just want to resell things over and over again."
"I think Prince is right about his critique of the music business, in the most important respects," says writer Steve Perry. "It's a very difficult thing for artists to deal with. It's quick burn. It's less than ever oriented toward cultivating artists and helping them come to their prime. What if a Van Morrison emerged today? He'd get one or two records to break through, and if he didn't, he'd be discarded."
But unlike DiFranco, Prince does not have larger philosophical differences with the record business. His complaints are all about the fine print. He wants to own his masters, he wants put out records as often as he likes without outside control, he wants an above-average percentage, and he wants the right to sell material on his own Web site. If he gets that, he'll sign on the dotted line. In 1999, after wiping "Slave" from his face, Prince got EMI to manufacture and distribute the three-CD set Emancipation. Two years later he signed a recording, licensing, and distribution deal to produce one CD for Arista Records, reportedly worth $5 million. There are already rumblings that Prince is shopping for a label to distribute The Rainbow Children after it debuts online.
"Sugar daddy once, sugar daddy again," opines his former associate, Alan Leeds. "Based on the kinds of deals he's made lately, he seems more money-driven today than he was when I was working with him. I mean, Arista steps up with a deal, and he runs like a thief to get it. He wasn't broke. Now, I defend his right to do that. I defend his right to change his mind. But I don't think he understands how that stuff affects the credibility of what he says."
According to Leeds, the origin of Prince's love-hate relationship with the music industry dates back to a mammoth deal negotiated with Warner Bros. in September 1992. Initially touted by Prince's personal staff as a $100 million, six-album agreement, the contract was one of the largest recording and music-publishing deals in history. The Los Angeles Times reported that the entertainer was guaranteed an estimated $10 million advance per album, plus a 25 percent royalty on every record sold. Warner Bros. also reportedly agreed to pay some $20 million to restructure Paisley Park Records, set up an office for Prince on a studio lot in Burbank, and give him a vice president's title. "Eat your hearts out, Michael Jackson and Madonna," read the lead paragraph in the L.A. paper's story. According to Leeds, those were exactly the words Prince was craving.