Mon, Jul 23, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Prince power

At 49, the pop visionary is still rocking the music industry and finding new ways to outrage record labels

By JON PARELES  /  NY Times News Service, New York

Prince performs during a jam session in the Montreux Jazz Cafe after his concert at the 41st Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland earlier this month.

PHOTO: EPA

There's no reason to disbelieve him. With a sponsorship deal here and an exclusive show there, worldwide television appearances and music given away, Prince has remade himself as a 21st-century pop star. As recording companies bemoan a crumbling market, Prince is demonstrating that charisma and the willingness to go out and perform are still bankable. He doesn't have to go multi-platinum - he's multi-platform.

Although Prince declined to be interviewed about Planet Earth, he has been highly visible lately. His career is heading into its third decade, and he could have long since become a nostalgia act. Instead he figured out early how to do what he wants in a 21st-century music business, and clearly what he wants is to make more music. Despite his flamboyant wardrobe and his fixation on the color purple, his career choices have been savvy ones, especially for someone so compulsively prolific.

Like most pop stars, he goes on major tours to coincide with album releases, which for Prince are frequent. But he also gets out and performs whenever he chooses. Last year he took over a club in Las Vegas and renamed it 3121, after his 2006 album 3121, which briefly hit No. 1 and spawned multiple conflicting theories about the significance of the number. He started playing there twice a week for 900 people at US$125 a ticket. In February he had an audience in the millions as the halftime entertainment for the Super Bowl. He has gone on to play well-publicized shows at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood for a few hundred people paying US$3,121 per couple, and another elite show last weekend in East Hampton for about US$3,000 per person.

Meanwhile Verizon put Prince in commercials that use Guitar, another song from Planet Earth, as bait for its V Cast Song ID service, making the song a free download to certain cell phones. On July 7 Prince introduced a perfume, 3121, by performing at Macy's in Minneapolis.

In the UK he infuriated retailers by agreeing to have a newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, include the complete Planet Earth CD in copies on July 15. (The album is due for US release this tomorrow.) Presumably The Mail paid him something in the range of what he could have earned, much more slowly, through album sales. UK fans have remunerated him in other ways.

On Aug. 1 he starts a string of no fewer than 21 sold-out arena concerts, 20,000 seats each, at the O2 (formerly the Millennium Dome) in London at the relatively low ticket price of £31.21, about US$64. The O2 ticket price also includes a copy of the album; Prince did the same thing with his tour for Musicology in 2004. Those Musicology albums were counted toward the pop charts, which then changed their rules; the Planet Earth albums will not be. But fans will have the record.

Prince's priorities are obvious. The main one is getting his music to an audience, whether it's purchased or not. "Prince's only aim is to get music direct to those that want to hear it," his spokesman said when announcing that The Mail would include the CD. (After the newspaper giveaway was announced, Columbia Records' corporate parent, Sony Music, chose not to release Planet Earth for retail sale in the UK.) Other musicians may think that their best chance at a livelihood is locking away their music - impossible as that is in the digital era - and demanding that fans buy everything they want to hear. But Prince is confident that his listeners will support him, if not through CD sales then at shows or through other deals.

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