Princely Guidance

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Prince, the irrepressible Prince. He defies convention at every turn. His latest twist sent the UK record business into a tailspin. For the launch of his new album, Prince broke his own street date to give millions of copies of his new CD away. Last weekend, the British newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, gave away nearly 3 million copies of Prince's new album, as a promotion. The album was scheduled for record-store release ten days later. The Mail on Sunday proudly boasted the feat on their cover, announcing in bold letters that all ten tracks were the exact same ones to be sold in stores. For the price of their ordinary Sunday newspaper, consumers in the UK were treated to a free copy of Prince's new album without any digital rights management code attached.

For Prince, it was a stroke of genius. His last album only sold 80,000 copies in the UK. Now, with one promotion, he got his music into more UK homes, than he did during the entire 1980s. Record stores were furious. His UK label, Sony/BMG, shelved plans to release the new CD, in solidarity with retailers.

It's actually not that surprising, if you look at it logically. CDs are easy to manufacture now and if you're valued and willing to give something away, a joint promotion with a large media outlet would not be difficult to organize. And since artists like Prince earn exponentially more money live than they do on record sales, building a giant new live audience base is just good business.

I suppose the biggest reason stars have avoided the promotional giveaway route in the past, is the promise of a cold shoulder from the trade. Artists who do not play nice with the record industry have faced sizeable retribution. The code of, 'You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours' is more than a clich' in the record business. It's a way of life. Record labels have banked on it for years. Retailers, radio stations and television networks have fed off it. Here in this country, artists like the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Bon Jovi--in other words, mainstream superstars--have all made exclusive retail deals in recent years and faced retaliation from the retailer community.

But times are changing, and fast. Record labels are quickly learning just how little control they have over their future. They can't tell radio stations what to play, they can't tell retailers what to stock, and they most definitely can't tell consumers what to buy. Instead, labels must settle for what they can do. First order of business is to change expectations. The standards by which labels judge success today were seen as dismal failures ten years ago.

Secondly, labels must analyze the business model they've chosen. If an artist like Prince can go directly to his audience, what value does a record label really offer? Thirdly, they have to analyze their economy. Superstar sales fed the machine for baby bands. No superstars where does that leave artist development?

Prince's promotion underscores just how vunerable the record business is. Behind all the rhetoric and positioning, the artist still runs the show. Yes, middlemen will have roles, but the golden era of music business kingmakers has largely declined. So goes the kingdom.

Miles Davis, in his autobiography, said that Prince was the only musician in the world capable of moving music forward. He may have meant that creatively, but Prince has done a fine job of opening our eyes to the business world as well.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.