Music: Prince Harnesses the Web, Again

Prince has always wanted to be your everything. On his first hit single, back in 1979, the R&B Romeo declared his intention to become not only your lover, but "your mother and your sister, too." The public compromised by letting him become pop's polyamorous changeling. During his "Purple Rain" guitar solos, Prince could be our Jimi. When funking it up with "Kiss," he was a falsetto-voiced James Brown. He even showed an affinity for Joni Mitchell–style lyricism, giving her a shout-out on "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker." So when Prince ditched his record company in favor of self-distribution during the '90s, anticipation ran high. Since he had been battling over the right to release as many albums as he wished—instead of a measly one per year—the upside was implicit: Prince was going to tear it up on the Web. There were rumors of unreleased, would-be hits, deliciously out-there funk sessions and hundreds of other Princely experiments that could finally hit the marketplace. That treasure trove never fully materialized. His online "music clubs" came and went with each new Prince recording, but they were frustratingly uneven. Worse, the best new tracks came saddled with antipiracy technology that didn't play nice with your iPod. Prince's last site went dark mere months after charging for "lifetime" memberships.

Now Prince—the first marquee musician to flirt with the Web—wants to go on another virtual date. While he is partnering with Target to sell a new three-CD set for the recession-proof price of $11.98, Prince will also offer subscriptions to his new site, Lotusflow3r.com, for a not-so-recession-proof $77 per year. With the physical albums available so cheaply at a bigbox retailer, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether the site could possibly be worth that much. More important than the economic rationale, perhaps, is whether Prince can use the Web to advance any artistic payoff.

Prince's counterintuitive move to charge top dollar for a digital home that duplicates music available on CDs is a new strategy for inducing hard-core fans to pay more. Nine Inch Nails tried the reverse in 2008 by offering multiple MP3 downloads for virtually nothing, and then enticing fans to pony up as much as $300 for deluxe, fetish-object box sets. While Radiohead's own pay-what-you-wish MP3 gambit is cited as a revolution, it's often forgotten that their site also sold a premium box-set version of "In Rainbows" for $81. Even smaller acts are getting creative. Cult country wit Robbie Fulks recently released 50 new songs—a Prince-like deluge—exclusively via his Web site for $35. Fulks isn't sure whether he'll release the music on CD, but says this is not just an eco-nomic experiment. By writing many more songs than could fit on a standard disc, Fulks says he was trying to discover new musical ideas that might not have occurred "under more stringent self-censorship." (His plan worked.)

As other artists learn to harness the Web for creative reasons as well as financial ones, Prince can no longer skate on his reputation for being pop's first online mover. Scott Addison Clay, the artist's latest Web developer, gave NEWSWEEK AN advance tour of the Web site, and it seems better designed than Prince's past efforts. The music, by the way, sounds exciting. "Boom" mixes psychedelia with funk rhythms and orgiastic guitar. When Prince deigns to adopt modern fads, such as Auto Tune–like pitch-bending in the song "Chocolate Box," he innovates by harmonizing with the digital sounds in a way T-Pain could never accomplish. But all that mere music can be had at Target for less than $12 starting March 29. Ultimately, the site, which is set to debut before the Target street date, will have to thrive apart from those first three albums. Clay says future plans for Lotus flow3r.com include a hybrid documentary-music video. But the deal-sealer, he concedes, is the potential for streaming live, VIP-only concerts from Prince's Los Angeles mansion. "There could be a live chat going on with members watching a concert, and Prince could actually play requests," Clay says. He also claims a colleague has organized 10 albums of old Prince music never released in any form. Should there exist an all-tuba record Prince recorded half out of his mind back in 1988, now he's got a place to let it toot—if only he can commit to digitizing all his diamonds and pearls.

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