Prince works outside record labels

The Purple One eliminates the middleman

I don’t know about you,” Prince exclaimed to the adoring masses at his March 28 Nokia Theater performance in L.A., “but I’m about to tear this place apart.”

The Purple One applies the same principle to his business affairs: He has consistently torn down the established labels’ sales model and built it back up in his own image.

While free file-sharing has eroded royalty accounting and emptied the wallets of many a pop icon, Prince has always been one step ahead of the game, dating back to 1997, when he became the first artist to sell an album (“Crystal Ball”) directly to his fans over the Internet, for $50.

In the past few months, Prince has been at it again, revamping his business model by deciding to release the three-album set — “LotusFlow3r,” “MPLSound” and his protege Bria Valente’s debut, “Elixer” — on his own NPG Records and giving a facelift to his exclusive fan website, unplugged since 2006.

“The gatekeepers must change,” Prince told the Los Angeles Times in January about his latest endeavor to work outside the record labels and other go-betweens.

Pulling off such a feat required the art of seduction that characterizes much of Prince’s music. He began spending more time in L.A. than at his Minneapolis homestead, not only to sync up with the West Coast music scene but to court the media with private performances at his Beverly Park mansion. As the launch date for “LotusFlow3r” drew near, Prince played three back-to-back dates on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”; headlined the most coveted, and funkiest, post-Oscar party, at the Avalon in Hollywood; and topped it all off with a record one-night, three-concert event at L.A. Live’s Nokia Theater on March 28 that sold out in a record 7.7 seconds.

Nonetheless, his “gatekeeper” philosophy isn’t a newfound one. The pop artist’s angst with the labels dates back to 1996, when he ended his 20-year contract with Warner Bros. Records; one of the sticking points was that the company failed to release some of his material. Since then, Prince has partnered with labels on a project-by-project basis. His 2007 album “Planet Earth” was released through Columbia Records and sold close to 300,000 units — a figure considerably below his previous partnership with the label on “Musicology,” which went multiplatinum with the help of free giveaways at his concerts.

Prince’s revamped Web domain, appropriately Lotusflow3r.com, gives his loyal followers exclusive access to an array of film footage and music from the Purple One’s “Vault” — a library that contains an immense amount of unreleased material. At a lofty annual subscription price of $77, fans also will be treated to such perks as live-cam concerts from the mansion and first dibs at tickets for last-minute, unannounced gigs, which have become a Prince trademark.

While some of the privileges are on par with Prince’s previous html address, his Web designer, Scott Addison Clay, who has been behind such high-gloss movie sites as “The DarkKnight” and “Twilight,” says Prince “felt his earlier fan site turned into MySpace. There were forums where fans could talk and see each other on the Internet.” Lotusflow3r.com touts the highest-quality MP3s around at 320 kilobytes per second — iTunes’ typical average kbps is 192. There’s also talk of a potential hookup with Microsoft’s Xbox.

“Prince wanted (the) LotusFlow3r (website) to function like a videogame in its interactivity,” says Clay, before adding, “but not in the way that you control Prince with jujitsu moves — that wouldn’t be appropriate.”

Assuming that 1 million fans sign up worldwide, that’s $77 million directly in the hands of the Prince empire — untouched by a label’s bookkeeper. The site’s launch, coupled with his three-

concert L.A. event and the release of his three-disc album set exclusively through Target the morning after (at a price of $11.98) underscores Prince’s MO to be a brand-name corporation unto himself, with money streams from publishing, touring, merchandising, advertising, ringtones, fashion and satellite radio gigs.

While the price that Target shelled out to Prince to sell his latest CD set is undisclosed, analysts put the amount at mid-six figures.

Sure, his recent album sales might be far from the 13 million “Purple Rain” benchmark, but it’s not about being multiplatinum for Prince, rather multiplatform.

“When I’m taking all the proceeds, I don’t worry about how well it does on the charts and I don’t need a No. 1,” Prince asserted at a 1997 Manhattan news conference pegged to his cyberspace foray. “I’m No. 1 at the bank.”