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In 1993, the relationship between Prince and Warner Bros. Records had 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 by 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. The album’s distribution was nonetheless operating at the scale of a cottage industry, but could not have made clearer to Warner of 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 that 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 was a seismic moment in his career. The song peaked at number 3 in the US singles chart, but struck number 1 in the UK – his first single ever to top the UK charts. The song became a considerable success and an unexpected boost to Prince’s ambitions as an independent artist. When Warner eventually released the album for which the single was written, The Gold Experience on 26 September 1995, NPG Records crucially received 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. First turning 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 now under the auspices of NPG Records. Named 1-800 NEW FUNK this compilation album contained the music from the collection of side projects Prince was recording over recent months, and its release on 12 August 1994 was timed to lay down the gauntlet to Warner’s release of Come that followed a few days later on the 15th. Again, without a distribution network behind him, the name of the album promoted the phone order line and website 1800newfunk.com, Prince’s merchandise outfit and one of the earliest e-commerce stores. This website, without 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 off guard having to fulfil the huge backlog of orders. Despite this lack in resource, it was proof enough Prince 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, over the next few years he looked again to the majors to strike a 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 and 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 had become ever more estranged from radio airplay. His promiscuous relationships with the labels did little to foster 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, then 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 appearing 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 functioning 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 and is 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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