By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"He wanted the headline of a $100 million deal. Janet [Jackson] and Madonna had had headlines for the biggest recording contracts in the industry, and he wanted to outdo those. And what he was willing to sacrifice in the negotiation of that deal was, in my opinion, downright wack."
Leeds won't go into specifics, but the L.A. Times would later report that the contract was predicated on performance, both personal and at Paisley Park Records. "If Warner fails to turn a profit on the new co-ventures with Prince by 1995, the speculation is that the firm reserves the right to retrieve its losses from money generated by Prince's personal record sales," the paper reported. It also seems clear that when he inked the deal, Prince knew he would not retain ownership of his masters.
In late 1992 the first album under the new deal was released. To this day, Prince blames the label's marketing strategy for 's tepid sales. Bob Merlis, a former vice president at Warner Bros., handled Prince's media relations for years. He says Prince's continued insistence that Warner Bros. somehow consciously sabotaged his success defies logic. "Look, I don't blame the guy for being disappointed. We were disappointed," Merlis says. "But whose fault was it? The company who had just paid top dollar to get the guy? I think the label put in a good-faith effort to market the stuff. Would it have done better on another label with another approach? No. I don't think so."
In February 1994 Warner Bros. concluded that Paisley Park Records was a losing proposition and ended its joint business venture with Prince, who had since changed his name. The split did not affect the label's separate contract with the singer, but the would-be studio mogul was relegated back to pop-star status. "Paisley never really broke an artist, and Warner Bros. hoped that as a producer Prince would be able to do that," Leeds explains. "They said, 'We've supported you and we've never ever said no to something you wanted to do. So when are you going to come with something that will help subsidize that?' My feeling was, that was a generous attitude to have."
Just three years after signing his blockbuster deal, Prince was taking potshots at the recording industry, branding himself a "slave" in videos and personal appearances. ("I told him one time, 'You're the only slave that owns the plantation,'" Leeds says now.) The way Prince saw it, not only did Warner Bros. own his masters, which were suddenly very important to him, but they weren't selling records. There is no indication that he ever thought the tepid record sales had anything to do with the quality of his music, or lack thereof. The past would repeat itself when neither Emancipation nor Arista's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic produced a memorable hit or a palpable buzz. In the later instance, Prince again chose to scapegoat the label. "You just come to an impasse and have to do your own thing," Prince explained in his June press conference, then followed up with a jab: "But I'm not mad at these guys. I mean, what else is [Arista founder] Clive Davis gonna do? He can't sing."
Counters Merlis: "If he had a string of hits, we wouldn't be having this conversation." In fact, Prince himself has said that if he had stayed with Warner Bros., he probably could have renegotiated his contract and reacquired his masters.
"He wanted his cake and wanted to eat it too," Perry says. "He wanted the headlines for being the highest-paid performer in popular music, but he didn't want to deal any longer with the red tape and protocols of major record labels. And you can't have it both ways."
Like nearly everyone else quoted in this article, Perry still pines for the day when Prince will return to form. On those increasingly rare occasions when he appears in small venues or at Paisley Park to give his all in a late-night, last-minute gig, it's still the stuff of legend: Prince lying on the stage, playing the blues on his guitar for 20 minutes. Prince working up a funk for hours, drumming the bass like a rhythm guitar. No medleys. No sermons. Just a good chance that he'll finally beg the crowd to "Shut up already! Damn!"
As far as Alan Leeds is concerned, Prince ought to take that trademark plea to heart. "As a songwriter, Prince will forever be able to write a hit song," says Leeds. "He's brilliant--way more brilliant than people will ever know, because of the mask, the imagery he is so obsessed with. If the guy would just stop caring what people think. If he would just put on a sweater and blue jeans, go on a theater tour without a band, sit at a piano, and just play. Man. It would triple his fan base. It would blow people away."