A Prince in Exile The Artist, still without a moniker or a hit to his name, discovers happiness with the fans who gave him his crown. @

September 20, 1997|By J. D. CONSIDINE | J. D. CONSIDINE,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

By recording industry standards, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince is turning into The Artist Who Formerly Had a Career.

Once one of the biggest stars in pop music, he seems to have shrunken into the shadows. He's barely on MTV anymore, hasn't made a movie since "Graffiti Bridge" flopped, and hasn't released a million-seller since "The Hits/The B-Sides" came out in 1993. He doesn't even have a record deal anymore.

By his own standards, however, things couldn't be better. "People who wonder if I miss 'the top' have no concept of evolution!" he says, in an interview conducted via fax and e-mail. "There is no 'top,' unless one goes down. Yet another fall from grace. What a joke!"

Indeed. And perhaps the funniest thing of all is that the farther he gets from that star-making machinery, the more in touch with his fans he becomes.

Start with the record company situation. When Prince (as he was known then) signed his last agreement with Warner Bros. Records, he thought he had a dream contract. Not only would he be getting a higher royalty rate, but he was also granted unparalleled artistic latitude through Paisley Park, the Warner-distributed boutique label he established for his side projects.

There was only one problem -- the bottom line. Warner had based its expectations on the multi-platinum sales of "1999" and the "Purple Rain" soundtrack. Prince, however, had other interests, and when his projects failed to generate the profits Warner Bros. expected, the dream turned into a nightmare.

In 1993, Warner objected to Prince's pace of production and refused to release new albums at the rate Prince was recording them. In protest, the musician renounced the name "Prince," replacing it with an unpronounceable glyph. He also announced that he would cease recording -- in effect forcing Warner Bros. to deal with the backlog of unreleased tapes. In response, Warner ended its distribution deal with Paisley Park, effectively shutting the label down.

By 1995, things had gotten so ugly that The Artist (as he now prefers to be called) began to appear in public with the word "slave" spelled out on his cheek. He finally parted company with Warner Bros. last year. Asked if the situation with Warner would have been better had the label been less interested in megahits, The Artist demurs. "These are the dramas of the unenlightened," he says. "My job was to create the music -- not to sell it."

Funnily enough, his current situation finds him handling both jobs. After leaving Warner, he cut a deal with EMI America for his first totally new album in years, the three-CD "Emancipation," which came out last November. It was negotiated as a single-album deal, but before he and EMI could arrange further ++ projects, the label went out of business. Suddenly, The Artist was on his own.

It was a situation that would have left others scratching their heads or moaning the blues. But The Artist saw it as an opportunity. An avid online buff, he realized he didn't need a record company to reach his fans -- all it took was the World hTC Wide Web. So in July, he started a Web site (at http: //www. love4oneanother.com), which describes itself as "the definitive place of gathering 4 all who love life, lovesexy The beginning of a webwide effort 2 change the vibration of the world."

Taking orders

One of the first things he did online was announce his next recording project, a four-CD set of what he calls "bootleg" material. Dubbed "Crystal Ball," it retails for $50 and is available only by phone order (1-800-NEW-FUNK).

It's not a normal album release. For one thing, "Crystal Ball" is, at the moment, merely a speculative effort, as The Artist won't actually begin pressing the set until he has 100,000 pre-orders in hand. (More than 70,000 have been received so far). For another, there are no plans for a booklet to accompany the album. Instead, credits and liner notes will be found at a special Web site -- one designed by The Artist's fans.

By dealing directly with his audience, The Artist hopes to produce music at a pace that suits his creativity, instead of being shackled to a marketing system designed to milk albums for as long as three years. "That process is what turned the better part of the music industry in2 the land of 'hear 2day, gone 2day artists,' " he writes.

"I suppose it's good for somebody, obviously not The Artist."

In addition to using the Web to get the word out about his music, The Artist is hoping to create a virtual community of computer-savvy fans. One of the features of his Web site is the New Power Generation's "Xperiment in Truth," a fan database The Artist is building in order to develop "a direct line" to his fans.

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