For decades, Prince has thrilled with his eclectic songs. Now, finally in control of his music legacy, he hopes to show other artists an alternative to the standard way of doing business.
Nightfall is fast approaching at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota. There are few lights on in the cavernous compound, and unseen doves are cooing up a racket. But even their collective noise takes a back seat once Prince — sitting in the dimmest bit of light — goes to his Mac, cues up a track and hits play.
A melodious instrumental track floods the room, the lush orchestration compliments of the Minnesota Orchestra, whom Prince tapped to perform. Its inspiration has come from a little-heard Dionne Warwick song, In Between the Heartaches, which he also played moments earlier. The track remains a work in progress; Prince has written no lyrics yet. But it’s music like this that keeps him going — to still, after all these years, take music to the next level.
“If you don’t try, how will you get another Insatiable?” he says, referencing his classic groove. Over the next few moments, he goes to YouTube to play an array of clips that get his musical heart thrumming, dipping from old James Brown clips to the relatively new UK singer FKA Twigs.
Prince isn’t always pleased about what he hears from today’s crop of entertainers — “The quality of the music, everyone would agree, is not the gold standard,” he muses about today’s mainstream pop universe.
But when it comes to his world, what he’s hearing ranks among the best that he’s heard in ages. This Tuesday he released his first album in four years, ART OFFICIAL AGE, along with music from his latest protege act, 3RDEYEGIRL, PLECTRUMELECTRUM.
“I’m completely surrounded by equal talent,” an energised Prince says. “To me it feels like heaven.” It’s not just the music that’s taking his Royal Badness to new heights: For the first time, he is releasing his music with complete freedom. The man that once wrote “slave” on his face in protest against not being in control of his own music and battled and then departed his label, Warner Bros, is now back with the label — under his own terms.
“What’s happening now is the position that I’ve always wanted to be in,” says Prince. “I was just trying to get here.”
In the spring, Prince, 56, finally gained what he had sought for more than two decades — control of his musical masters, and, in a larger sense, his musical legacy. In the past, Warner Bros held the rights to Prince’s music, even long after he left, as part of the contract he signed as a new artist. But after savvy legal manoeuvring, he owns the rights to all of his vast collections of hits, including archival music that Prince fans have been longing to hear for decades. Prince gained control of the publishing rights to his compositions and has performance rights — which means he completely controls his musical destiny.
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, who works closely with Prince on legal and financial matters, calls it his “fight for justice” and an enormous game-changer for the industry. “It’s magnificent, and he wants all musicians to have this,” she said. “This is just something that he feels incredibly passionate about.”
Long a trailblazer for artists’ rights, and for coming up with innovative approaches to break away from the label-structure that he’s viewed as unfair to artists, he sees the way the industry has unfolded as the ultimate “I told you so”: disappearing labels, a streaming system that some music acts say nets them even less profit for the music they made, and increasing challenge to make money just off of making music.
He scoffs at the image of him that had long been defined by others; a technology-phobe who resisted what was to come in the industry, like that persistent notion that he once declared the Internet dead. “We were saying it was dead to us — dead energy,” he explains. Prince speaks passionately of his disdain for traditional record contracts and publishing agreements that he believes give most of the power — and profit — to other entities, not the creator of the music.
The entry of Apple as the major player hasn’t helped, in his view. When asked about U2’s much analysed venture with Apple — in which the company paid them for their album, then released it for free — Prince simply says. “That’s a designer deal. But what about the others?”
Prince is hoping to show artists that there is an alternative to the standard way of doing business. This spring, he launched NPG Publishing; besides administering his own music, it will do so for other acts. But he’s quick to note that he doesn’t have artists signed to him.
For Prince, success is about audience impact. He’s not looking for a repeat of 1984: “I don’t need another gold record,” he says. Nor does he care about charting No. 1 songs or hits. When he explains why he isn’t, he says: “You don’t quantify success by numbers.” He’s working on a rerelease of the epic Purple Rain album for its 30th anniversary, but when asked if he’s excited about it, he flatly says no.
“Same album, just state-of-the-art sound,” he says.
Prince isn’t stopping with the two new albums and the Purple Rain rerelease: His song Funknroll is being used by NFL, and he’s excited about new avenues for his music.You’ll find his new music on iTunes, and Spotify, but he doesn’t see anything contradictory in that. “It’s about the deal. Anything I’m doing now, it’s equitable.”