This is an expanded version of an article originally published as a companion piece to an article on Prince getting ownership of his original Warner Brothers’ masters which ran in the May 3rd issue of Billboard .
Since Prince left Warner Bros. Records in 1996 — after an 18-year run that yielded some of his bestselling records, including “Purple Rain” — his ongoing quest to own and control his music as much as possible, and deliver it to his fans outside the traditional label system, led to a dizzying string of distribution deals. Like many of his business endeavors, such as his short-lived Glam Slam nightclubs in Minneapolis and Miami, these distribution efforts yielded extremely mixed results, owing to issues with infrastructure, staffing, attention span and, not least, the creative and commercial significance of the music involved. Here’s a look at some of his bigger hits and misses.
Since 1996, there are few majors with which Prince hasn’t partnered. After parting ways with Warner that year, Prince signed with EMI, which released “Emancipation” in 1996. The album peaked at 11 on the Billboard 200.
Next up was Arista, which released “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic” in 1999. (Highest chart position: 18)
Sony-owned Columbia Records released “Musicology” in 2004, which debuted (and peaked) at No. 3.
He then jumped to Universal for the 2006 CD “3121,” which gave him his first No. 1 album since the 1989 “Batman” soundtrack.
And then he was back at Columbia for “Planet Earth,” another No. 3 debut and peak on the Billboard 200. In 2009, Target exclusively released a three-CD package that contained two Prince albums, “Lotusflow3r” and “MPLSound,” and a disc by protege Bria Valente.
This year, less than a month before the new Warner deal was announced, Prince returned to Sony via its Epic label for his single with Zooey Deschanel, “FallInLove2Night.” All of the above releases, as well as more than a dozen independently distributed Prince or Prince-helmed albums and EPs have been on his NPG imprint.
In 2004, Prince added a new milestone to his storied career: a revision of Billboard’s chart policy. That year, he staged the biggest comeback of his career by embracing the legacy he’d largely spurned over the preceding years. He performed several of his biggest hits with Beyonce on the Grammy Awards, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and embarked on his first full-scale arena tour in many years.
Capitalizing on the excitement, Prince bundled copies of his “Musicology” album with tour ticket purchases, handing out copies of the album to each concertgoer upon entrance to the venue. The distributed CDs were counted by Billboard and SoundScan as sales for the corresponding week of each show, resulting in “Musicology” peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 — his highest-charting album since “Diamonds & Pearls” in 1991. The promotion led Billboard and SoundScan to tighten up their policy on how tickets bundled with albums would count for charting purposes.
Prince used a similar tactic in 2007, bundling his 2007 “Planet Earth” CD with the British newspaper Mail on Sunday, which led Sony-BMG to withdraw from distributing the album in the UK. In 2010, his “20Ten LP” was available exclusively as part of a bundle with four international publications, including the UK’s Daily Mirror and the German edition of Rolling Stone.
Prince has had such a conflicted relationship with the Internet that it’s surprising he hasn’t dedicated one of his trademark Eye-Love-U-But-Eye-H8-U slowjams to it. He employs a legal team that rigorously chases his music off of the Net. In 2010, he famously told London’s The Mirror, “The Internet is completely over” and followed by saying “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else.
Prince’s “Interactive” CD-ROM
Although he would contradict that statement in 2011 by releasing the single “Extraloveable” via Apple’s download store, Prince’s grump-old-man stance belies the fact that he was one of the first artists to attempt to make the digital realm work for his endlessly morphing, ADD creativity. In 1994, he released “Interactive,” a CD-ROM containing a videogame, unreleased music, interviews, a virtual tour and more. Three years later, he was one of the first major artists to try — unsuccessfully — to release an album via the then-relatively-new Internet.
“Crystal Ball” 5-CD set
That ambitious project, “Crystal Ball,” was a fans’-wet-dream collection of outtakes and new material sprawled across five CDs in an elaborate package, which initially could only be ordered via a website or the 1-800-NEWFUNK mail-order service. Not surprisingly, fulfillment was the devil in the details: Despite earlier proclamations, the package ended up being sold at retail — and arrived in stores months before most fans received their mail-order copies, many of which shipped without the CD booklet that contained the track list. Presumably as a make-good, some packages that shipped late arrived with T-shirts and some fans later received a cassette containing a 26-minute-long song called “The War.” Many did not.
In 2001, Prince tried again with the NPG Music Club, a project intended to be an online community for fans. For a monthly fee of $7.77 or yearly premium membership of $100, subscribers would have access to exclusive audio and video content, initially accessible via a poorly functioning “NPG Player” — which was quickly replaced by download links — as well as a regular radio show and preferential access to tickets, soundchecks and afterparties. Although he released dozens of songs and videos through the service and won a Webby Award for it in 2006, Prince shut the site down in 2006, saying, via a statement, “In its current form, there is a feeling that the NPGMC has gone as far as it can go.”
LotusFlow3r was another, even more problematic attempt at a membership site that launched in 2009 with an initial promise of three albums and a string of exclusive song and video content for $77 per year. The promises fell short and the site was shut down early in 2010, leaving angry and disappointed fans.
Since then, Prince-related sites have popped up and vanished with the frequency of his musical protégés: 3121.com housed content and (often-cryptic) information around the time of that 2006 album; MPLSound.com arose in the LotusFlow3r era; and Prince2013.com (initially 20Pr1nc3.com) carried the “Screw Driver” video and a three-hour 2009 concert before shutting down.
Most of Prince’s current activity can be found at 3rdEyeGirl.com. Originally affiliated with the Prince’s all-female backing group, the site has essentially become his purple majesty’s home page, and he posts messages via the @3rdEyeGirl Twitter feed.