Prince Reclaims His Crown

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As for Prince's public re-emergence, L. Londell McMillan, the singer's longtime friend and business partner, says simply, "It began with a yes." McMillan is referring to Prince's surprising agreement to perform on the Grammy Awards after years of turning down such requests. That appearance and his Hall of Fame induction had two significant results. First, sharing the stage with Beyoncè at the Grammys and being hailed by OutKast and Alicia Keys at the Hall of Fame induction demonstrated to Prince how decisive an influence he has been on an entire generation of younger artists. He was so moved by Keys' speech—"Because of him, I've never wanted to be like anyone but myself... Because of his music, my music has wings to be different"—that a video of it introduces him every night on the Musicology tour.

Prince is well aware that his antics in the past have caused him to be portrayed as, in his words, a "petulant brat" or "a megalomaniac." That aspiring musicians heard a call to freedom amid the din of controversy surrounding him couldn't possibly be more important to him. "The respect of young artists—I love that," he says. "Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people. Alicia Keys gets it. All these hip-hop artists, the first thing they do is start their own label and lock their business down—we had a lot to do with that."

But, perhaps even more important, the initial steps that Prince took to re-engage his fans reignited their passion for his music. "I think people sometimes forget how great a genius he is," McMillan says. "What's happening now represents the vindication of one of the best all-around artists of all time."

Because "Musicology" is so listener-friendly, Prince overcame his near-pathological wariness about record companies and agreed to allow McMillan to work out a deal with Columbia Records. Columbia, which is part of Sony Music, will distribute and help market the album domestically (and be reimbursed for the costs of doing so) and license it for sale in the rest of the world. It's an arrangement that essentially requires no upfront costs on the label's part, while providing a strong profit incentive for the company to sell as many copies as possible. On his end, Prince gets the enormous reach of an international corporate powerhouse.

According to Sony's president, Don Ienner, the label has filled orders for upward of a million copies of the album worldwide. "And with the first copy shipped, we started making money," he adds. "We have really high expectations for this, and, though there are no guarantees, we hope to remain in business with Prince for a long time. How often does an artist of his stature become available on any terms?"

Prince received no advance payment from the label—"That's the price of freedom," McMillan says. But the singer retains complete ownership of the album, the whole point of his grueling battle in the Nineties with Warner Bros. He also gets a much higher percentage of sales than he would under a more traditional arrangement. "One advantage of writing 'slave' on my face back then is that when I meet with a label now, they already know they're not going to be owning anything," Prince says wryly. "Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken. We don't roll like that no more." In addition, everyone who purchases a ticket to the Musicology tour receives a copy of the album, though without the packaging or the "Musicology" video included in the Columbia version.

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