This time around, the Artist calls the tune

Music: The former Prince says he will re-record his entire song catalog as the next salvo in his ownership spat with the Warner Bros. label.

April 15, 1999

NEW YORK -- Even for a notorious control freak, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince is planning a pretty audacious challenge to his old record company.

Unhappy at his failure to gain possession of the music he recorded for Warner Bros., the Artist says he will re-record the music -- all of it -- and sell it on his own.

That's everything: "Purple Rain," "Little Red Corvette," "Raspberry Beret, "Kiss," the whole catalog. He recorded 17 albums for Warner, beginning in 1978 when he was seen as a teen-age prodigy and lasting until their nasty divorce five years ago, not including a greatest hits package.

Re-creating the music shouldn't be much of a problem, the Artist says, because on most of the records, he played all the instruments himself and provided all the vocals.

"Fleetwood Mac would be hard-pressed to do something like this," he says. "The only people I would have to argue with are the people in my head."

He's not discouraging anyone from buying his old records; he still gets paid when that happens. But he gets paid a lot more if he sells them himself, and he wants to own recordings of the music that made his name -- the name he used to go by, anyway.

He has repeatedly made known his interest in obtaining the rights to his own master recordings, said Bob Merlis, a spokesman for Warner Bros. Records. That doesn't mean there have been any negotiations toward that end.

"We'll always talk to somebody," Merlis says. "It's extremely unlikely that we will ever give an artist, with no compensation, original works that were sold to us under a valid contract."

Re-recording material isn't unprecedented; Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis did it when they switched record companies in the early days of rock 'n' roll, Merlis said. But it's unusual today, and most contracts with artists prohibit such re-recording for a set period of time. He wouldn't comment on the Artist's contract.

"I would be interested to hear what it sounded like," Merlis said.

Just before last New Year's Eve, Warner Bros. distributed to radio stations a single version of the 1982 Prince song "1999," sparking some renewed sales. The Artist responded by re-recording the song in several different versions and selling the CD via his Web site.

But that was just one song -- not hundreds.

The Artist insists that much of his early material will sound better when redone since recording technology has improved. He won't say whether he will be faithful to the old versions or if he will tweak them. He gave no timetable for their release.

"Most artists lose their voice, their hair and their bands," the 40-year-old singer says. "That's not going to happen to me."

The workaholic songwriter also said he's composing an opera, presumably in his spare time. He's also making another studio album, and in another departure from his work habits, he is allowing other producers to work on his music, and is writing songs with others.

He won't identify the collaborators, other than to say, "I'm working with some people you wouldn't expect me to be working with." They might even remain unidentified on the final release due to contractual issues.

And how will the strong-willed Artist deal with it when a collaborator disagrees with him on how something sounds?

"They know it's my album," he says. "They're going to give me the last word."

Since leaving Warner Bros., the Artist briefly had a distribution deal with EMI. Most recently, he's been selling his music primarily through orders placed at his Web site, including last year's boxed set, "Crystal Ball."

But he says he's likely to work out a deal with a major label to release his next album and has no problem working with a big label. "What I had a problem with is ownership of the work when I was finished."

Re-recording would be the latest salvo in his decade-long feud with Warners, a battle that led to him scrawling "slave" on his face during some performances, and to legally changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. While he has his own typically eccentric spin, he's also a model for the growing trend of musicians taking control of their business affairs.

The Artist's album sales have steadily tumbled since "Purple Rain" sold 12 million. That's not unexpected, since few musicians stay on top for so long. But his decision to stand apart from the traditional record business machinery also probably ensures that his hit-making days are over.

He said he's much happier now.

"It's more fun for me because you can actually see the difference in the music," he says. "You can feel the freedom in the air when you're like that and you're not thinking about anything like what is the next single or how can I make my image look good for the video.

"All that stuff is in your head whether you're thinking about it or not."

Pub Date: 4/15/99

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