Baby, I’m a Star, Again

The Wall Street Journal has an article about Prince’s return to the spotlight. (link via Anil of course) I’m glad that Prince is once again receiving the accolades that he deserves, even if he did lose me for the last few albums. I like what I’ve heard so far of the new material and I’m looking forward to hearing the whole album.

As I always do when I post about Prince, I have to ask: Where the hell are the digital downloads of all the 12-inch singles and B-Sides? Wake up Warner Brothers and come up off the content. The contents of Prince’s alleged vaults need to be freed too.

On a related note, check out Jay Smooth’s review of Prince’s recent concert which was broadcast live to theatres across the country.

I’ve archived the WSJ article below for posterity. 🙂

Baby, I’m a Star, Again

How a Seeming Has-Been Spent Months Preparing To Reclaim the Center Stage

March 31, 2004; Page B1

After years of working on the margins of the entertainment business, pop star Prince is riding a surprise resurgence. But while his comeback seems sudden, it was hardly spontaneous.

The music legend, who burst on the scene in 1978 and dropped off the charts more than 15 years later, has spent months preparing to reclaim center stage. On Monday, he played at Los Angeles’s Staples Center to a record-breaking crowd for the arena, more than 19,000 people.

Other major arenas in his 63-city tour are selling out coast to coast. “Musicology,” his first major-label release since 1999, is due out on April 20 through Sony Corp.’s Columbia Records. Cable music-channel VH1 begins playing the music video this week. He gave televised show-opening performances at last month’s Grammy Awards and earlier this month at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner, where he also was one of seven inductees.

Yet as recently as December, the 45-year-old Prince looked like a has-been. He’d also become the object of curiosity, if not outright ridicule, thanks in part to stunts like his 1993 decision to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol. People resorted to calling him “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” for want of another name, sealing his reputation for being erratic.

But it was his years battling his former record label, Warner Bros., that took its greatest toll on Prince’s stature and record sales. He was furious that the company, following standard industry practice, refused to cede ownership of the master recordings for his albums going back to 1978. He, and people around him also felt the label, owned by the now privately held Warner Music Group, hadn’t devoted enough attention to marketing his older work.

Warner Bros. says the label would need more cooperation from Prince to undertake a stronger marketing effort, adding that the label would be “pleased to work closely with him.”

After calling it quits with Warner in 1996, the musician, who changed his name back to Prince four years ago, bounced from label to label. Eventually he settled for releasing his albums himself, including through his Web site, named after his band, the New Power Generation. The NPG Music Club site doesn’t release sales figures, but industry experts estimate his album sales were nowhere near what they could have been with the backing of a high-powered record company.

Despite his reputation for being difficult, the former Prince Rogers Nelson of Minneapolis is widely recognized by music critics as a genre-busting, if temperamental, genius. He also was known for pushing musical boundaries as regularly as he pushed the buttons of music-industry executives.

His very public dispute with Warner Bros. — he has scrawled “SLAVE” on his face to protest the company’s dealings with him — won him no fans in record-industry boardrooms. After years of clashing with the music establishment, Prince ended up isolated by mainstream media: He has sold his work — all but absent from radio stations, MTV or other outlets — through the Internet and his own music label.

Critics who long praised Prince’s prodigious talent, also seemed to have turned on him. His 2003 self-released CD “N.E.W.S.” was largely ignored by critics. Among the few American publications that reviewed the title, the Onion, a satirical magazine and Web site, in its arts reviews derided “N.E.W.S.” as the “least-essential album of 2003.” According to Nielsen SoundScan, the disc has sold just 20,000 copies since its release in June.

Eric Leeds, a saxophone player on Prince’s last tour, told an interviewer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that Prince had come to accept “that he’s not going to be selling 15,000-seat arenas anymore.”

But that’s exactly what Prince is now doing. How did this seemingly sudden reversal of fortune take place?

A comeback like this “doesn’t just happen,” says Ronnie Lippin, a veteran music publicist whom Prince hired in September, when he was first laying the groundwork. Prince decided he had to be more flexible with the industry if he was going to reach his audience. Getting back on the mainstream radar required some aggressive moves. “It is far from a casual process, and Prince is the primary force driving everything,” Mr. Lippin says.

Some of the steps Prince took were subtle but effective, such as climbing onstage to play guitar on an impromptu, midnight rendition of his 1986 hit “Kiss” at a January Golden Globes after-party at the Beverly Hilton.

Before securing his new record deal with Columbia, Prince is said to have met with several record executives to discuss signing with them. Among the high-profile executives he talked with: Bruce Lundvall, who as head of Blue Note records, owned by EMI Group PLC, has played a key role in Norah Jones’s stunning success. And Prince has gotten his face back into American living rooms by having his publicist book him on television programs from PBS’s “Tavis Smiley Show” to “The Tonight Show.”

Although Prince is clearly more willing to cooperate with the industry than in the past, he hasn’t given up his quirky ways. When Ken Ehrlich, producer of the Grammys telecast, wanted to invite Prince to perform a duet with pop-star BeyoncĂ©, Mr. Ehrlich wasn’t told to call a manager (Prince doesn’t have one), but a guitar technician named Takumi Suetsugu. Mr. Ehrlich says Prince had declined several previous invitations to play at the Grammys, but this time “he was ready for a major return to the scene.”

What’s more, Prince wanted to ensure his appearance made a splash. “He had only one condition,” Mr. Ehrlich says. “That he open the show.”

That performance, a medley of hits by Prince and BeyoncĂ©, garnered critical raves and stoked public anticipation for his concerts. Further heightening the buzz for his tour, Prince has said he will perform old favorites for the last time — a smart marketing ploy that has helped him nearly sell out six arena shows in the New York City area, and five in the Los Angeles area.

Prince’s rapid rise, fall and rise again is a testimony to his stature as a creative powerhouse. He was inducted to the hall the very first year he was eligible under the Hall of Fame’s rules. Nominating-committee member Bob Merlis calls Prince “as close to a slam-dunk as there is.”

Meanwhile, although Prince still feels angry with Warner Bros., he has since softened in his dispute with the label. His longtime lawyer L. Londell McMillan says the singer is no longer seeking outright ownership of the masters — just more control and more generous financial terms.

Production, distribution and marketing of Prince’s coming CD is in Columbia’s hands, but Prince is reserving the online sales for his own Web site. There his fans will be able to download the collection for $9.99 beginning Monday. The CD carries a suggested retail price of $18.98.

It remains to be seen how successful Prince’s comeback will be. But one executive thinks he’s making the right moves. “The timing feels right,” says Rick Krim, VH1’s executive vice president for music and talent, viewing a copy of the “Musicology” video.

“He was away long enough,” Mr. Krim says.