Prince has always been a bit of an enigma to me. Although I was a relatively early adopter (Purple Rain was one of the first cassettes I ever bought, right after Duran Duran Rio), I sort of lost interest by the early 90s. But even when I wasn’t listening to his music, I was always keenly aware of Prince’s marketing chops. The slave/symbol thing might have been a little out there, but great marketing – it kept Prince in the public eye when there was a bit of a lull due to a fight with his label.

That being said, I jumped back on the Prince train with his 2004 Musicology release and subsequent tour. The music was impressive, but even more impressive was Prince’s tour sales strategy. Prince gave away a copy of his new record with every ticket sold on his arena tour, and SoundScanned every one (meaning that every CD that he gave away with the price of the ticket was counted as a sale by SoundScan, the company the record industry uses to account for retail or show sales). It was a brilliant idea for a couple reasons. First, his record reached #1 based on these show sales, which generated even more press for him. Second, it shows that Prince understands the power of “word of mouth” to sell his music.

At least that is what I thought. I was surprised to read today that Prince took a page from Metallica’s playbook by personally fighting YouTube and demanding that his footage be removed. Prince has hired a firm, appropriately named Web Sheriff, to remove the offensive videos. I found the description of their difficulties to be pretty funny:

“In the last couple of weeks we have directly removed approximately 2,000 Prince videos from YouTube,” said Web Sheriff managing director John Giacobbi. “The problem is that one can reduce it to zero and then the next day there will be 100 or 500 or whatever…” he told Reuters.

Seems like an exercise in futility to me.

Perhaps this is another brilliant press move on Prince’s part. But I think the YouTube video of Prince’s solo at the end of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show did more to raise his visibility than pretty much anything else he could have done at the time. It doesn’t seem right to me that someone who would spit in the eye of his record label by bundling his CD in with newspapers in England would fight such a powerful promotional vehicle.

The Arts and Crafts label is a good example of label that understands the importance of a brand. Much the same as Stones Throw, I know that 9 times out of 10 times I’ll be into what the label puts out. Maybe it’s the fact that more than half the bands on the label have members who play with Broken Social Scene (who are great), but I like to think that they have a particular aesthetic and musical taste that mirrors mine. It makes me want to support them and buy their records/downloads.

Which leads me to the unorthodox release of the new Stars record. Days after the record was mastered, the label released it online, months prior to its retail street date. The following was posted on the bands Website:

Traditional music business practice says we are to begin sending out copies of this album now. We give advance copies to print publications in hopes of securing features that coincide with our September date. We meet with radio stations in hopes of securing airplay. etc, etc.

Inevitably someone will leak the album.

Throughout this process, the most important people in this value chain, the fans, are given only two options – wait until September 25th to legally purchase the new album or choose from a variety of sources and download the album for free, at any time.

We hope you’ll choose to support the band, and choose to pay for their album. However we don’t think it’s fair you should have to wait until September 25th to do so.

We believe that the line between the media and the public is now completely grey.

What is the difference between a writer for a big glossy music magazine and a student writing about their favourite bands on their blog? What differentiates a commercial radio station from someone adding a song to their lastfm channel? or their myspace page?

As such, we are making the new Stars album available for legal download today, four days after its completion. The CD and double vinyl versions of the album will still be released on our official release date, September 25th. We hope you will continue to support music retailers should a physical album in all its packaged glory be your choice of format.

It’s our hope that given a clear, legal alternative to downloading music for free, you will choose to support the creators.

We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Sincerely,

Stars and Arts&Crafts

Whether these motives are indeed true, or this was just a really shrewd marketing move by the label…I’m not sure. Arts and Crafts may have a point…I do know that the press are eating the record up, with positive reviews in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Stylus and about a hundred million music blogs. Press may be propelled to cover this release more thoroughly as it’s the first time this tactic has been taken. But if every artist did the same, would press be so kind? What if your fan base is less computer savvy than Stars? Will they still be able to find the record if there is no retail or radio coverage? Independent retail definitely holds a grudge when they think they have been wronged (read my Smashing Pumpkins commentary here). Does this even matter anymore?