RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The new CD by the artist once again known as Prince hits U.S. stores today. Last week, Prince caused a stir in the U.K. by giving away nearly three million copies of the album inside a British newspaper. It was great news for fans, but as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, his label wasn't very happy.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: From the beginning, Prince has been a maverick and something of an eccentric. Owen Husney, Prince's first manager, met him in the late 1970s in Minneapolis.
Mr. OWEN HUSNEY (Prince's First Manager): He was running around in like practically pantyhose, and people didn't know he was so androgynous. What is he? Who is he? Is he male? Is he female? Oh, he's crazy. What is he?
(Soundbite of music)
BLAIR: Gender aside, Prince became a multimillion-dollar musical powerhouse.
(Soundbite of song, "Baby I'm A Star")
PRINCE (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Hey, I ain't got no money. I ain't got no (unintelligible).
BLAIR: Prince has also been controversial, and not just for some of his lyrics. In the late 1970s, Prince signed with Warner Brothers and made the label a lot of money.
(Soundbite of song, "Let's Go Crazy")
PRINCE: (Singing) If you don't like the world you're living in, take around - at least you got friends.
BLAIR: The album Purple Rain alone sold more than 15 million copies worldwide and produced four Top 10 hits. In 1992, Warner offered Prince a $100 million contract, one of the biggest ever for a musician, but Prince didn't like the terms. Among other things, he wanted to own his own master recordings.
Prince made his anger public by inscribing the word slave into his beard. Jason King teaches about the record industry at New York University.
Professor JASON KING (Record Industry Teacher, New York University): It highlighted to audiences that recording artists, as glamorous as that life may seem, really have very disadvantageous contracts with record labels. The flip side of that is that he really wasn't a slave in the sense that record companies really did a lot for him in terms of marketing him, promoting him, pushing him.
BLAIR: Prince didn't make it easy for them. With few exceptions, he refused to do interviews. Bob Merlis was director of publicity at Warner Brothers when Prince was signed to the label. And he says he tried several times to convince Prince to talk to the press.
Mr. BOB MERLIS (Former Director of Publicity, Warner Brothers): He did say something about I could have a conversation about music with Miles Davis, you know, and cited some musical terms, like, you know, diminished fifths, arpeggio, whatever. He said, but I don't really speak the language that these journalists speak.
BLAIR: Besides, creating a mystique around himself is just as effective a marketing tool as baring your soul in the press. Prince didn't say much about his decision to give away his new album inside a British newspaper, either. Anyone who bought the Mail on Sunday on July 15th got a free copy of "Planet Earth."
(Soundbite of music)
PRINCE: (Singing) Just like the (unintelligible) around the sun, planet earth is now committed its balance with the one.
BLAIR: Prince's current label, Sony BMG, was not happy with the giveaway. The company announced it would not stock "Planet Earth" in retail shops in the U.K. One retailer called Prince's decision absolute madness. Now the album is all over the Internet for free. So is it madness, or is this another deliberate marketing decision?
Music critic Tom Moon thinks it's the latter.
Mr. TOM MOON (Music Critic): He has the chance to claim listeners right away. He doesn't have to mess with an antiquated system of getting the record from him to the ultimate end user. Why not get people familiar with the music quickly, get it out there, create a little bit of a stir?
BLAIR: Besides, musicians have always made most of their money from performing. And right now, Prince's concert tour of the U.K. is nearly sold out. He's recently played exclusive shows in Las Vegas and New York at more than a thousand dollars a ticket.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.