One Saturday in 2012, when I was an executive at iHeartRadio, Prince called me and started the conversation by saying, “I’ve been thinking about Michael Jackson a lot lately, not because of what happened to him, but because sometimes I think we forget to speak to one another. There’s no real musicians’ union. We can’t do a lockout [referring to a then-battle between the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and mangement].” He continued, “So I love talking to people like you from time to time and helping you appreciate that we're all neighbors. The business vs. art battle is preposterous."
So when the Paisley Park museum opened so quickly after he died, I wanted to see for myself if it felt like business, art, or a smart balance of both. I visited on opening day, and the clearly rushed experience left me feeling that business won out at the expense of art. This year, I returned to see if anything had changed with time. Happily, due in no small part to a superstar staff member, art feels back in the mix at Paisley Park.
Paisley Park, the Museum: Early Days
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years at the Paisley Park museum: it’s an emotional experience for any Prince fan. But the early incarnation of the museum felt far more somber, and not just because Prince’s demise was so recent. Within two minutes of our group’s VIP tour starting, our guide gestured to a replica of the building in which we were standing, encased in glass in the middle of the building’s atrium. “And this,” she said, softly, “is where Prince’s ashes are located.”
Oof. Al Roker’s pre-opening walkthrough on the Today Show -- which didn’t include the detail that his remains were not only on-site but one of the first things on display when you entered -- hadn’t prepared me for that (at press time, his ashes are no longer on display, a topic that’s the subject of one of multiple family disputes). Suddenly, I understood why several people in the group ahead of me were sobbing heavily instead of crying a few soft tears of remembrance.
Our guide clearly had a deep admiration for Prince, but seemed to work from a script that offered little in the way of insight for major fans. As she led us through the tour -- which had all the logistical issues you’d expect from day one of a rushed project -- we often bumped into other groups and could hear their guides. It quickly became apparent that getting those guide gigs didn’t require a Ph.D in Prince.
“Here, you’ll see plaques from hit albums recorded at Paisley Park Studios by artists other than Prince,” said one guide as he gestured to a long row of framed records. “Like this one, Out of Time by R.E.M., which was produced by Prince right here at Paisley Park.”
I literally choked. Prince most certainly did not produce R.E.M.’s Out of Time (sorry, longtime R.E.M. producer Scott Litt!).
As the tour continued, with guide gaffes that weren’t as large but certainly frequent, I felt increasingly melancholy. Yes, I was comforted by the camaraderie with fellow mourning fans. One thanked me for sharing the sampler plate of Prince’s favorite vegan foods I’d purchased by saying that she hesitated to ask for a bite, but figured that because I was there, I was in her tribe. And I was. But though I was neither family nor friend to Prince, I couldn’t help but think that he’d have wanted more from his museum.
Paisley Park, the Museum: Today
When I entered Paisley Park on a sunny Saturday in late March 2019, our tour guide Tomi (pronounced Tommy), a tall, balding white guy with sparkling blue eyes who looked to be in his early 50s, was already speaking with tour-goers who’d arrived early. “Oh, I work another job Monday through Friday, and I give tours at Paisley Park on Saturdays and Sundays. Those are the best two days of the week for me,” he said. Tomi is what you’d call a Prince superfan, having attended parties at Paisley Park regularly since around the time it opened in 1987. “I do this because I want to give back to Prince for giving so much to me as a fan.” His wide smile, positive energy, and long history as a real-deal Prince fan gave me high hopes. I wasn’t disappointed.
The museum experience has evolved since day one. I took a newer level of VIP tour, The Ultimate Experience, which seemed to focus more on Prince’s craft than just memorabilia. Our group of 15, which included two locals and others from as far away as London, watched a clip of Prince band member Levi Seacer, Jr. discussing how Prince recorded about 70% of “Cream” on his own, overnight, when told that the label thought Diamonds and Pearls needed another single.
Tomi then led us into Studio B, where he walked us through Prince’s process for recording. He’d often mic the drums himself -- no small feat, indeed. Tomi held up a sample of the analog tape onto which Prince would record, physically splicing it as edits became necessary (Prince once lit up when I told him that an engineer friend of mine who accompanied me to one of his shows could tell the horns were live, even though the players weren’t visible. “Analog music changes biochemical structures in our bodies,” he said).
As Tomi went on to play us an early, unmastered version of Prince’s “Rock and Roll Love Affair,” which he later followed up by playing the far more rich, vibrant final to demonstrate how the recording process worked, his reverence for Prince’s work was clear. “I’m a grown-ass man and I’m nervous about touching Prince’s keyboard,” he said as he fumbled with the playback computer.
Several other things had changed on this new tour (something that remained the same: when songs like “Sexy M.F.” and “Pussy Control” played in the NPG Music Club, they were the clean versions). When I first visited, part of the VIP experience was the ability to take a photo seated at one of Prince’s pianos, which enraged some fans concerned about the degradation of a precious artifact. Now, photos are taken with the piano in the background; Ultimate Experience tour-goers do get to hold one of Prince’s cloud bass guitars as long as they wear disposable white gloves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Prince worshipper Tomi hasn’t yet worked up the nerve to hold it himself.
So, Paisley Park 2019. While I can’t speak to the General Admission or VIP Tour experience, I can say that with the right guide, The Ultimate Experience is special. The content focused on Prince’s work and his process in a fashion that was meaningful for those knowledgeable about how music is made, as well as your average tourist. As Tomi said, “Some people come here because they’re in the area and just want something to do on a Saturday. Some know more about Prince than Prince probably did. But one thing I want to get across to everyone who comes through these doors: the man was a genius, self-taught, who just gave us so much,” he said, tearing up.
In my experience, the art is back in the building at Paisley Park. And if you’re compelled to go, try to make sure Tomi’s working. His passion is nearly as beautiful as Prince’s work.
Zena Burns has held senior positions at iHeartRadio and TEEN PEOPLE Magazine, and founded the consulting firm Moxie Coalition. Today, she’s an executive at technology company Futuri Media.