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In 1993, the relationship between Prince and Warner Bros. Records plunged to a new low. An erosion of trust between them was sparked by the contract the pair signed in 1992 for a record £100m, the highest amount paid to any performer let alone solo act. The restrictive terms, as Prince saw them, transferred Warner too much control over Prince’s music and recording ambitions. But with his Paisley Park Studios costing $6m a year to run, Prince, in little position to bargain, signed the contract. With his label Paisley Park Records a Warner Brothers entity, Prince’s calls to release more music, at the time Warner preferred that he reduce output in order to enhance sales, Prince felt trapped. He reacted by founding his wholly owned and independent label in 1993, which he named NPG Records. Prince appointed trusted friend and New Power Generation band member, Levi Seacer Jr., its first President of Operations.
The first release of NPG Records was GoldNigga, an album credited to Prince’s band the NPG, to hide his involvement on it. It was sold at concerts of the Act II Tour in the summer of 1993. That album’s distribution was nonetheless operating at the scale of a cottage industry, but could not have made clearer Prince’s intention to continue releasing music through NPG Records. When seeking Warner’s permission to issue his first commercial release with NPG Records, Warner politely obliged but on the proviso he release one song only.
That song happened to be The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, which Prince recorded in September 1993, but with no distribution network to speak of he reached an arrangement with Bellmark Records, an independent music distribution house in LA. The single was released on 9 February 1994 and proved a seismic moment in his career. The song peaked at number 3 in the US singles chart, but striking number 1 in the UK – was his first chart topping single in UK. The song became a considerable success and gave an unexpected boost to Prince’s ambitions as an independent artist. When Warner eventually released the album which the single was written, The Gold Experience on 26 September 1995, yet crucially NPG Records was given the production credit.
With their star act seemingly operating beyond their control, Warner announced the closure of Paisley Park Records on 1 February 1994, this spurred Prince to issue more releases under NPG Records. Turning first to the unreleased material by the artists he was working with as Paisley Park Records, he raced out a compilation album as if to showcase the stable of talent under the auspices of NPG Records. Named 1-800 NEW FUNK this compilation album contained music from the collection of side projects Prince was recording over recent months, its release on 12 August 1994 was timed to lay down the gauntlet to Warner’s release of Come that was following a few days later on the 15th. Again, without a distribution network behind him, the name of the album announced the phone order line and website 1800newfunk.com of Prince’s merchandise outfit and one of the earliest e-commerce stores. This website, without the aid of any distribution arrangement or marketing, sold 250,000 units of his triple album Crystal Ball as a simple mail order – a huge surprise which caught the staff at NPG Records on the back foot having to fulfil the huge backlog of orders. Despite this lack in resource, it was proof enough to Prince he could make a success as an independent.
NPG Records certainly enabled Prince to produce music at the rate he desired, but distribution remained its greatest challenge. Acknowledging that this was his greatest barrier to market, Prince was a household name after all and over the following years he looked again at the majors to strike manufacturing, distribution and marketing deals but on his terms. The arrangements were simple. Whilst the labels could take their cut for the distribution, Prince would retain the ownership and master recordings of his music. This new approach saw his royalty soar to 70% per sale. His first deal was with EMI, proving both successful and congenial he afterwards struck a string of similar deals with BMG, Arista, Columbia, Universal, Epic, and even Warner Bros. Yet their traditional model of business still relied on chart success – particularly problematic since Prince became ever more estranged from radio airplay. His promiscuous relationships with the labels did little to nurture sustained radio rotation. His resulting disappearance from the mainstream pushed Prince to pursue ever alternative avenues to distribute his music, first settling for deals with small independent outfits such as Redline Entertainment, to an exclusivity arrangement with Target stores. He released two albums distributed with newspapers, as well as had venues hand out copies of his latest CDs, included in the ticket price of his shows. Although presenting a haphazard approach for fans to obtain his music, the arrangements guaranteed bulk sales than to rely on charts as the measure of success.
And if they stood up and behaved like the humans they’re supposed 2 as opposed 2 the way they are not.
Prince became one of the first, and certainly the first major, artists to leverage the internet as a medium to deliver music directly to fans, offering digital downloads on his pioneering subscription service NPG Music Club.
Unlike Paisley Park Records, which was open to other artists and thereby functioned as a conventional label, NPG Records was more of a closed shop – its doors open purely to Prince or the artists he wished to record with. An early release was Child Of The Sun, the debut album for Prince’s new wife Mayte. But as NPG Records grew, it released music for Prince’s influences, George Clinton, Larry Graham and Chaka Khan, and girlfriends Bria Valente, Andy Allo and Judith Hill. Prince’s guitar technician Trevor Guy took over the running of the label in 2013 and remained in post until Prince’s death in 2016. NPG Records remains active today, in the ownership of and releasing music for The Prince Estate in partnerships with Sony Legacy and yes Warner Bros., too.
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