Prince's Planet Earth : Brilliant in More Ways than One

James Brown would be proud of "Chelsea Rodgers," the standout track on Prince's new album Planet Earth released earlier this week. However, Donald Trump may be even more proud of the way Prince has been conducting business lately. Since the days when he wrote "slave" on his face in protest of what he believed was the recording labels' exploitation of artists, Prince has enjoyed being a royal pain in the ass to the music industry.

The funny thing is that even though there is no doubt that Prince is a musical genius, it's not really the music on Planet Earth or even his recent live shows (including his spectacular rain-soaked performance at Super Bowl XLI, just nominated for two Emmys), that has ensured his continued brilliance.

The risk he took last week in England provides us with an illustration. Before its official release, Prince gave away nearly 3 million copies of Planet Earth with the Sunday edition of a newspaper. Prince's decision enraged much of the music industry, including Columbia Records (who was under contract to distribute the CD worldwide) and record-store chains that said Prince was disrespecting them by not following the traditional ways of selling music (and thus cutting their profits).

The record stores threatened boycotts, Columbia Records canceled the distribution deal in England (but not elsewhere), and Prince somehow came out on top. While the newspaper deal apparently paid Prince approximately what he would have earned through record sales (according to Jon Parales), Prince must have gained even more satisfaction in preventing the music industry from taking its normal cut. And despite the controversial deal, or perhaps because of it, Prince's upcoming "21 Nights in London" tour is nearly sold out.

Now the music industry is scrambling to figure out what happened.

About three years ago, Prince gave away millions of copies of his CD, Musicology, at U.S. concerts. And a funny thing happened as a result: the copies he gave away counted as record sales, boosting the CD up the charts where it remained--more or less--throughout the tour. Was it fair for Prince to give away CDs and then benefit from his position high on charts traditionally based on record sales? Perhaps not, industry insiders believed. However, the chart position, no doubt, led to increased ticket sales for his concerts, resulting in Prince's tour being the most profitable of 2004.

Now, in 2007, Prince is making another creative move, this time with a twist. He's still giving away CDs to promote his live performances (instead of the other way around). But this time, instead of scheduling a grueling six-month tour in which he performs nightly in every small city with a 25,000-seat arena, he has set up performance "residencies."

That is, following several high-profile TV appearances last year (e.g., the Oscars, American Idol finale, etc.), he set up for several months in a small theater at the Rio in Las Vegas where he played intimate yet high-profitable weekend shows. Ticket packages, some that included dinner served by Prince's personal chef and informal jazz concerts after each show, cost fans several hundred dollars each. Then, in recent months, Prince moved west to Los Angeles to the Roosevelt Hotel, and now, after making a quick stop in East Hampton where he played a quick gig (for $3000 per ticket), he's off to London for three weeks of shows.

In sum, these concert residencies have been highly-profitable financially, and have provided him with flexibility in his schedule. During the last few weeks, for example, he's launched a new perfume in Minneapolis (an event that included three short performances, most notably a late-night one at First Avenue, the club featured in the movie Purple Rain) and a surprise appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He's on MTV, yet this time it's in a Verizon commercial that offers free downloads of a song from Planet Earth to its subscribers.

To some, it may seem that Prince is selling out (it's even rumored that he's exploring a deal with Starbucks' to distribute his music in its stores). But we should not blame him for these bold moves.

For Prince, it's been over a decade since he wrote "slave" on his face and began his struggle against the music industry. At the time, he seemed motivated by fellow artists (such as TLC) who had sold millions of records yet had little to show for it financially after the industry's cut. After signing multi-album contracts as new artists, they were not allowed to release music necessary to fulfill their obligations and move on to more lucrative deals. For Prince, the issue was not necessarily about the money but about the fact that he was not able to own the rights to his music.

Of course, questions remain regarding Prince's recent efforts: Is Prince revolutionizing music distribution in the best interests of his fans and fellow musicians, or is he simply besting the capitalist, profit-mongering music industry at their own game?

In general, Prince's fans have enjoyed his creative strategies though, understandably, some have been frustrated by high costs of tickets to his recent live performances. Some fans also point out problems with ticket distributions, claiming on the fan-site housequake.com that tickets designated for fan clubs have been mismanaged for some of the "21 Nights in London," resulting in some members buying tickets only to learn later that additional tickets were being released to the general public much closer to the stage.

Despite these kinds of issues, in recent years, Prince has been highly successful in distributing music directly to his fans. His latest CD, Planet Earth, while being given away in the U.K., is widely available for free listening on the internet and for sale on Amazon.com for only $9.99 in the U.S. While the CD lacks a booklet insert and the cover reminds one of the 3-D baseball cards children used to find in cereal boxes, Prince has made the lyrics available for free download at his website: 3121.com

In terms of Planet Earth itself, there are additional reasons for Prince's fans to appreciate the present and be optimistic about the future. While it is true that this particular CD contains few tracks near the level of his true classics and that many will find the references to Jehovah excruciating, there are indeed a few treats.

In addition to the retro-disco "Chelsea Rodgers," other highlights include "Future Baby Mama" (with its reminders of "Do Me, Baby" and more recently "Call My Name"), "The One U Wanna C," "Mr. Goodnight" (which is much like the very best of his early-'90s music), and "Guitar," the song currently being used to sell Verizon phones. "Somewhere Here on Earth" is simply beautiful with its arrangement of horns, piano, vocals, and touching lyrics. This song contains reminders of those released on Parade as well as a few of the best ones on the Batman soundtrack (e.g., "Scandalous").

The title track, reminiscent of "Sign 'o the Times" and perhaps "Ronnie Talk to Russia," has received mixed reviews. On it, Prince is trying to offer commentary on the current political situation:

"Fifty years from now, what will they say about us here? Did we care for the water and the fragile atmosphere? There are only two kinds of folk, and the difference that they make the ones that give and the ones that take.... Imagine sending your first born off to fight a war with no good reason how it started or what they are fighting for. And if they're blessed to make it home, will they still be poor? Pray for peace now and forever more."

While not entirely successful, his efforts here should be applauded.

But, by far, the biggest treat is the return of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, former members of Prince's band from the early 1980s, The Revolution. While their contributions seem limited on Planet Earth to "additional keys" and "acoustic guitar and mandolin" (as they're listed in the credits), it is important to recall that Wendy and Lisa served an additional purpose in the band up until their departure in 1986. That is, they served as a critical voice in Prince's world, often urging him to explore new musical genres and work more creatively. It's been widely-reported that Wendy, in particular, pointed it out to Prince when he fell back into musical territories that he'd previously exhausted. This role has been glaringly absent in Prince's professional life since then.

Wendy recently told Jon Bream (July 13, Star Tribune) that their contributions to Planet Earth were made, not in person, but over e-mail, with Prince sending tracks to them electronically. This may explain how lesser tracks such as "All the Midnights in the World" could have made it on the final version of the CD.

Wendy has performed quite a few times with Prince during the last three years, starting with an acoustic performance on the Travis Smiley Show in 2004 up to the recent Roosevelt Hotel gig. She may also join him for some of the dates in London. Wendy and Lisa's being back in the picture has generated great excitement among Prince's fans, and when one looks at the whole picture (i.e., the music, live performances, and creative marketing), there should be little doubt: it's a good time to be a Prince fan.