Prince was not a genius. Or was he? (transcript)

Published May 7, 2016

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Here we are, and a hail and hearty who dat? to you all. I am still Michael Phillips and this is still THIS IS NOT A TEST. Though no testing was done on animals to bring you this ultra-entertaining 30 minutes of sublime spacticity. No animals were harmed, either, in the making of this epic opus you’re about to feel flowing through your ears into your brainium cranium, altering your very molecular structure and making you one of us. Gibble gobble, we accept you. Pull up a chair or one of those sleeping hoods you can order online for napping in the library or on the train. Have you seen those? It’s called an Ostrich Pillow®, and I shit you not. You pull this thing over your head and it’s huge and looks like a 1950s sci-fi alien head, or giant radioactive ant. There’s a hole for your mouth and nose to stick out of, for breathing purposes I guess, and two holes on the side to stick your hands into. Yeah, your hands go into the big thing covering your entire head, then you, you know, lay your head down on the desk or sidewalk in front of you and catch a nap. I’m not making it up, I’m not that clever. Look it up. Do the needful. Christmas is just around the corner, isn’t it? Seems like it should be.

Well, I didn’t intend to talk about Prince again, beyond what I said last time, but it’s a new day, so let’s throw out all of those old expectations, shall we? We are the New Power Generation, after all, aren’t we? I had a long bit about him and his life and music here all ready to go, like 45 minutes worth of blabbing, but I threw it out to do this instead. “This” being something that I could have talked about before he died. Something that might seem more random, but I really didn’t want to do a eulogy or a remembrance. So this won’t be that. I’m doing it after he died though, so obviously some of that could creep in. If you don’t like it you can creep out. I won’t be offended. Prince won’t be offended, and my dog will just yawn and dismiss us all. She’s probably the smartest one here.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to recently come across a huge collection of unreleased Prince material – well, lucky for me, for some people maybe it wouldn’t be lucky – but I’m still trying to come to grips with it. The whole thing is about 40 CDs worth of unreleased material – more than 750 tracks. Some of those are alternate mixes and whatnot, but there are 450 different songs there. The guy who put that set together says that’s not even half of what exists in Prince’s notorious “vault.” Not even half, which means maybe 1,000 completed songs unreleased, in addition to the 54 albums that were officially released. What’s that? You’ve only heard of 8 or 9 or 20 Prince records? I know, it’s a lot of stuff, and even a big fan could have missed some of it. Or a lot of it.

There are those who call Prince a “genius,” but I don’t happen to fall in to that camp. I don’t really think any musician or writer is a “genius.” To me, geniuses are people who invent shit, or revolutionize the human experience somehow, and while music and art certainly make the human experience more bearable at times, they don’t fundamentally change it, the way electricity in your house or the railroads or home computers did. And yes, I suppose it’s true that people can be musical geniuses or creative geniuses or whatever, but even there I’m not really convinced that they should be considered geniuses. Because if you scratch the surface of any creative genius, what you find underneath is someone with an innate talent, yes, but also someone who is driven to work incessantly and create every day. Sometimes every minute of every day. When you pair that with talent and ability, sure, sometimes you get a creative genius. Talent or ability alone will never make a creative genius. That drive element has to be there. And certainly by that incessant, every day, drive-to-create measure, there has never been anyone in music who comes close to Prince and his overwhelming output of music. No one.

That’s a bold statement, and I’m sure it’s making most of you think really hard right now to find an example of someone to prove me wrong. I understand, that’s the way I think too. So I’ll give you a minute to think. Well, I don’t really have to give you a minute, because you can’t come up with anyone no matter how long you think. Not in music anyway, going back to the classical composers. For sure no one in pop music or rock and roll or any other kind of recorded music you can name, no one has released more than 50 albums worth of music and died sitting on top of just as much unheard stuff. No one.

The thing about the thousand – or thousands, depending on who you believe – of unreleased Prince songs is I don’t think he necessarily recorded them for release. He wrote and recorded them because that’s just what he did. That was his reason for being. And the numbers are probably not what they seem anyway. When you’re mixing songs, for instance, you can easily end up with a dozen different versions – or more – then you pick the one that works best, and that’s the release. No one throws those other versions in the trash, they go into a vault. Or a dresser drawer or onto a shelf or up in an attic. But even if there are “thousands” of different songs in Prince’s vault, and not just thousands of different mixes or takes, I think it’s safe to say that there are still hundreds of really good ones that would be at home on a commercial album release. But who knows, man. We’ll probably never know. I hope they don’t release everything in the vault. Who would mix it all anyway? Well, that’s another question or story for another time.

But genius or not, Prince was ahead of the curve, that’s undeniable. I mentioned last time that he “had a beef with his record company,” which is what the kids call an understatement. The reasons for that beef are interesting and important, and they changed the way things work for recording artists. The Warner Brothers feud, for lack of a better term, started shortly after Warners and Prince signed a 100 million dollar recording contract. Well, okay, they started long before that. Warners didn’t want him to produce his own debut album when he was still a teenager, but they lost that argument. They didn’t want to release the Dirty Mind album the way it was – they thought it was raw and unfinished – but again they lost. They wanted him to cut 1999 down to a single album – the list goes on. But those disagreements were small potatoes compared to what prompted Prince to start writing the word SLAVE on his face and talk shit about Warner Brothers in interviews and concerts.

The big disagreement started with that 100 million dollar recording contract. Prince wanted that number because no one had ever signed a deal for anything close to that amount. Including Michael Jackson and Madonna, who were probably the only two recording artists on par with Prince, commercially anyway, in the 80s. So he wanted that 100 million number so he could be called the highest paid recording artist, and he got it. So far so good, right? But the actual contract had sales stipulations and the 10 million dollars he would get per album was still an advance, as it usually is with record companies. Well, when he really started to dig in to the details of the deal – which, granted, you’d think would have happened before signing – but when Prince started to see that the contract wasn’t really that different from any other contract, he was upset, and he started to ask a lot of questions, and he started to ask why he didn’t own his master recordings or his publishing and he basically became aware in great detail of what we all know now is the exploitative way the record industry is set up.

So he was upset about the 100 million dollar deal that wasn’t really a 100 million dollar deal at all, but rather a very typical one that could see him owing Warner Brothers money when everything was said and done, and he took that anger and more or less went to war with them. He went to war with Warner Brothers because that’s who he was signed with, but essentially he went to war with the record industry. He wanted control of the release of his music, and Warners wouldn’t agree to more than one release a year. They thought even that was too frequent, but Prince wanted to release a new album every six months. Sometimes more often than that. He wanted to release two separate albums on the same day at one point, and Warner Brothers was not about to do that. So that’s kind of how it went, Prince just hammering away at the company trying to get control, and the company being a company and resisting anything vaguely out of the ordinary.

So naturally Prince started writing the word SLAVE on his face. I can only imagine the meetings at Warner Brothers when that started. But that was only the beginning. He figured if Prince was a slave, maybe it wasn’t so cool being Prince, so he changed his name to that symbol. Everyone everywhere ridiculed that move, and it’s hard to blame anyone for thinking it was crazy. As a creative person though, changing your name to something that can’t be pronounced is the kind of move that could make people question things like identity. It’s the kind of thing that has a lot of different levels to it. Especially for a recording artist, whose “product” is something you experience through your ears, not through words. Anyway, to the average Joe and to pretty much everyone else in the world, it was just crazy. But it was crazy that dragged the already at-odds and reluctant record company along with it, because now they had to formally inform everyone that Prince wasn’t Prince anymore, now he was a symbol. And they had to get their art department to make that symbol into something print and TV could use and send it all over the world – again, I can only imagine the meetings.

So the name change was a cool idea and I’m sure it was a sincere move by an intensely creative person, but it had the added benefit of being a real pain in the ass to the record company that he was warring with. Win/win. It was shortly after that, in the mid-90s, when Prince said something that also made everyone think he was crazy – or crazier – and that was, “If the Internet becomes what they say it’s going to become, it’s the end of the record business.” Yes, you say that now and everyone goes ‘yeah, no shit,’ but in 1995 you weren’t on the Internet. Hardly anyone was. You probably didn’t even know it existed, or if you did it was only because you had heard some vague talk about it from your nerdy cousin, the one who no one wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving dinner. So when Prince was going around saying that music would one day be sold and transferred between computers, he may as well have been telling people he was teaching himself to breathe underwater and was going to start an underwater society for free thinking aqua-people.

To put it in perspective, David Bowie was a very early adopter of the web, but he didn’t start until the end of 1998. By that time Prince had been selling music online for two years. Yeah, that’s right. Warner Brothers eventually caved in to his relentless needling, resistance and trash talk and let him out of his contract. He gave them a couple of albums to release, but he was free to start his own thing, and he did it online. In February of 1996 he launched website – the first of many NPG websites – and started taking pre-orders for a three CD album, Crystal Ball. In 1996! Later he started the NPG Music Club, which was an online and 800 number subscription service to get the latest Prince albums, preferred concert seating and assorted other Prince junk. After that came the Musicology download store – all of this before iTunes launched. And pre-Napster, which, it’s worth mentioning, Prince was not against. He was not in the Metallica camp where Napster was concerned, he saw it as a good thing. He even released a single on Napster once. He would change his tune where online stuff that he didn’t directly control was concerned, but we’ll talk about that later.

He was able to offer that preferred concert seating as part of the site subscription because in addition to taking control of his record releases he also started booking his own tours. The record business has a dozen layers of middlemen, each taking a percentage, and the concert tour business is the same. When you read about the Katy Perry or Beyonce tour making 200 million dollars, only a small percentage of that money makes its way to miss Perry or her royal Beyonce-ness. When Prince cut out most of those middlemen and handled the tour logistics and booking, he did two things: he freed himself up to decide when and where he would play – announcing the shows only a few days before the dates to cock block the ticket scalpers, often booking dates less than a week before playing them – and selling them out. Some recent Canadian shows were announced only three days before they were played, and all sold out. Handling the tour booking also freed him to keep a much bigger chunk of the tour money.

Maybe predictably, after leaving Warner Brothers, Prince started to run in to money problems, and a lot of people were saying that he was close to going bankrupt. Warners had financed the Paisley Park label – not the studio building, but the record label – and when that money stopped, all the label losses fell on Prince. And that label lost money pretty well. It was really good at losing money. And he had always been free-spending, because money seemed to come in freely for him. But without a major label to write checks for a lot of that stuff, he found himself a little down and out there at first. Then he did that first self-booked tour and banked almost 90 million dollars. You didn’t hear any talk of bankruptcy after that. Selling his own records also let him take a much larger cut of that pie. He would make 5 million dollars on sales of half a million records. An artist on a major label is just starting to break even at half a million sales. When he was having a hard time getting an album to chart, he came up with the idea of including the latest CD in the price of a concert ticket. He did that on the Musicology tour in 2004. Since people were paying for that ticket and the record was part of the ticket, the charts had to count every concert-goer as a record buyer. That made Musicology go to #3 on Billboard. And a few months later Billboard changed that and said you couldn’t count a record included with the price of a ticket as a sale. But it was another win for Prince, another way around the traditional record business. Crafty bastard.

There have always been independent artists with their own labels, steering their own careers and making their own money. But never on a large scale, never one of the top artists. His doing that turned everyone’s heads. It changed the way big artists negotiated their deals and made everyone demand more autonomy. Every big artist working today owes at least part of their freedom, inasmuch as they have any, to Prince. Would someone else have come along and done the same things? Maybe. But try to imagine Michael Jackson or Madonna actively working to remove themselves from their source of income, publicly calling out their record company, referring to themselves as slaves. Then getting out and starting up and relying on a website, of all things, when 99% of their fans didn’t know what a website was. I can’t see that happening. It took a stubborn, creative motherfucker who was self-confident enough to believe something so dangerous and untested could work for them. Maybe someone delusional or egotistical enough. Prince was all those things, so as I see it, looking back on those days and what the reality of the business was, only Prince could have done it. He was the only one crazy enough. He was the only one punk rock enough.

What he did changed the music business for those at the top, but his real battle, his war with the way the business works overall – he didn’t win that. It’s still a losing game for a musician just starting out. It’s better than it used to be because the Internet makes it a lot easier to tour and get your music to people. But to make the jump to a major label, or what’s left of them, still means selling your soul and most of your rights for next to nothing. Or less than nothing. What’s funny is the record companies didn’t see the Internet coming because they were busy gathering up mountains of money in the 80s and early 90s, selling CDs to you and me for $16 that they paid half a buck to manufacture. That half a buck is even less if it’s a release of an older record, since there are no production costs for the music, it’s already there in the air conditioned vault waiting to be pressed up again on whatever new media comes along. So they didn’t see it then, but kind of incredibly, now, 20 years after Prince sold Crystal Ball online, they still don’t see it. They figure iTunes is the beginning and end of everything now. None of them are even trying their own thing. It’s amazingly ignorant, but then why should record companies change now.

Being first online was a forward looking move by Prince, for sure, but eventually he started getting wound up in the loss of control that the Internet inevitably brings and started actually suing his fans. Paying lawyers to file lawsuits to take down fan sites, which were a big thing back in the prehistoric times of a decade ago. Now, you could say that suing your fans is never a wise move. Even the record industry eventually figured that out. But Prince maintained his stance, not so much against individual fans – he let that go – but against YouTube and other high profile music sharing sites. And yes, YouTube is a music sharing site. Be realistic. He had people looking for his music online and filing DMCA takedown notices when they found it, and that worked. It allowed him to control what was available online to a large degree. As much as it’s possible to control something that’s chaotic and uncontrollable by its very nature. Now that he’s gone who knows what will happen. If no one is paying to get the stuff taken down, it won’t get taken down, so I can only assume we’ll see a flood of Prince showing up on YouTube now. Probably a lot of that unreleased stuff that Warner Brothers doesn’t have any interest in protecting. We’ll see.

But all of the business and money aside, Prince lived to create music. That’s obvious. The business stuff was a necessity, as it is for most of us, on a small or large scale. You have to protect your income, or find new ways to keep it going, and that’s all Prince was doing. He just happened to see a little further in to the future than most of his peers did. Maybe it was those sunglasses with the third eye lens. Maybe he was just smart and open minded. Whatever the reason, he shook things up in the business as much as he did in the grooves. The tech industry would call him a disruptor, and I think he’d probably embrace that description or characterization. He was certainly using social media and the online world to his advantage again with his last band, 3rd Eye Girl. They were teasing new videos and releasing songs via Twitter and Instagram. It looked like Prince was back in the soup, making records that were, let’s say, a little more focused than some of the post-Warner Brothers stuff, which may just be because, well, he went back to Warner Brothers a couple years ago.

Why did he do that? He didn’t say, naturally, but if he’s known for a while now that he was sick and maybe even on his way out, it might have seemed in his interest, or in the interest of his music, to have it under the control of someone – some company – that could continue to release it. Better the devil you know, I guess. The story isn’t over yet. Could be that it’s just starting, and like Bukowski, Prince will just continue to become even more famous after death. Time will tell. It’s amazing how much emotion there is out there for Prince. This kind of thing happens whenever someone noteworthy or famous dies, of course, but I wasn’t really prepared for how raw a lot of people are about it. Prince connected with them a lot more deeply than your typical rock or pop music dork, which is kind of ironic, considering how little of himself he actually revealed. But I think people respond to the love that he preached, the same way they respond deeply to Bob Marley – because these were guys who just wanted us all to love one another and get along. When someone like that disappears…well, everyone feels it. And who feels it knows it, yeah? Sayonara my infinitely funky Minnesota homeboy.

Speaking of Minnesota, or places that aren’t at all like it, even remotely – Carol and I were out in the desert last week, in Joshua Tree at a place we go to, a place we rent out there. The Doggie Trail house. It’s remote and isolated and we go out there to look at rocks and lizards. Or sometimes to work on art shows or books or whatever, but this time we were just doing nothing, which is what the desert was made for really. The place is changing though. A few years ago they installed a hot tub, and when we went out this time they had satellite Internet hooked up. Both of which kind of fly in the face of the desert experience, but I’m not gonna lie, I’m in that hot tub every day at sunset. It’s surreal sitting in there out in the middle of the high desert. Watching the jackrabbits and rattlesnakes and quail and god damn cougars tooling around (the wildcat cougars, not the actress from the Friends TV show), all looking for an evening meal before it gets too dark. So I have to give a thumbs up to the hot tub, but seeing the wifi router in the bedroom when we walked in kind of threw me for a loop. We usually cobble up some phone tethering Internet or hook up a cell network wifi thingie when we’re there, but that’s a clunky connection that we only used for half an hour or so at night to check email or enter Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes. You know, the essentials. Cell phone reception isn’t great out there, so our makeshift Internet was always slow and difficult, which meant we only used it, like I said, for a few minutes a day.

The satellite Internet in the house now is still slow and clunky, as satellite Internet has always been and probably always will be, but just having it there and on all the time made us use it more than we would have in the past, and that was kind of a drag. Some places you don’t want an easy Internet connection. Some places you go to get away from the god damned Internet. But there it was, and it’s really everywhere, so resistance is futile. But I think next time we might abandon our beloved Doggie Trail compound and find someplace even further off the grid, if that’s possible. Soon we’ll carry the grid with us. Or even more so than we already do, and there will be no escape. Then where will we go to get away? I’d say space, but the reception is probably better up there. The bottom of the ocean? I’ll bet you can’t get Internet there. So that’s it then, that’s our next destination, the bottom of the sea. We’ll be there with Prince and his underwater society of free thinking aqua-humans. And if de-elevator tries to bring us down, we’ll just go crazy, and punch a higher floor. See you next time, Aqualung. Keep breathing.