Rumors are circulating that Prince is courting several major labels to release his next album, which will reportedly be a collection of acoustic versions of his biggest hits. Though Prince’s music hasn’t been relevant for years (don’t even talk to me about Musicology, the free cardboard-sleeve promotional copies of which were counted toward the album’s weekly sales in a rather transparent attempt at bolstering both his chart clout and concert tour), the artist formerly known as the Artist seems to be blazing a trail for the future of wheeling and dealing. After several years of trying to do the Ani DiFranco thing, Prince made his major label return with 1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, which was distributed by BMG under Arista and sold modestly. His follow-up, The Rainbow Children, was distributed by Redline, while last year’s Musicology was part of a one-shot deal with Columbia.
For years talkers have been talking about artists taking the same path as film actors, who, back in the day, used to sign exclusive contracts with movie studios but now work as free agents, open to negotiating on a film-by-film basis and guaranteeing themselves the fattest paychecks possible. Not only would a similar setup benefit the recording artist (true musicians like Fiona Apple would be free to make whatever kind of music she wanted without the fear of having her recordings held hostage by executives solely concerned with the bottom line), it would be healthy for the entire industry. While the majors continue to consolidate, collapsing in on themselves and effectively pushing new talent to the outer boroughs of the business (i.e. indie labels and artistic “safe havens” like Sanctuary Records), both rising and established artists would be free to shop their projects around until they found the most appropriate home for their music.
Courtney Love “suggested” the idea during one of her venomous court battles with Universal, who gobbled up her label Geffen a few years back, but, perhaps, the free agent idea requires a more “sober” spokesperson. Like, say, the spiritually reformed Prince. Prince can rest assured that the label that buys his next LP will market it like a summer blockbuster rather than a February turkey. Island/Def Jam seems to be taking that approach with Mariah Carey’s upcoming The Emancipation of Mimi, the second of a relatively conservative three-album deal for the singer. Encouraged by the early performance of its lead single, “It’s Like That” (hey, remember when an artist could get a singles deal to test the waters first?), the label is billing Mariah’s new album as “The Return of the Voice.” While that bold proclamation remains to be seen (rather, heard), it’s the kind of committed marketing campaign that, even if it doesn’t have a windfall financial payoff, could keep Mariah loyal to label head L.A. Reid.
On the other hand, why would a record label want to take a chance on spending the kind of money necessary to market and develop a risky new artist when that artist could simply jump ship once he or she finds success? Well, for starters, nobody wants to walk the plank into the shark-infested waters of the music biz, and it’s simply more incentive for the label to do its job and keep the artist coming back. Contractual “options” should give both the artist and the label the choice to walk, regardless of whether it’s a superstar artist like Prince or a newcomer like Jesse McCartney. As Mariah knows, a marriage should only last as long as both parties are being satisfied. And get this: Artists could come back to a label even after dalliances with competitors! What an idea! It’s an open relationship even a Jehovah’s Witness could endorse.