How Prince reinvented the album release in the noughties and mid-90s

This was a particularly innovative era for The Purple One

Today sees the release of ‘Anthology: 1995-2000’, a new collection that collates fantastic cuts from a fertile, unusual period in Prince‘s career. He was particularly prolific at this time, churning out one funktastic gem after the other, and he also began to experiment with his album releases, dropping music online many years before this became the norm. Here, then, is a found-up of his most innovative record releases from 1995 to 2000, proving what a visionary dude he was.

‘Emancipation’ (1996)

Eleven months before releasing his 1996 album ‘Emancipation’, the Purple One performed a show at Paisley Park Studios, where concert-goers were given an exclusive cassette to the track ‘Slave’, which would appear on the album. Prince billed the record as “the album I was born to make” and, one week before its release, held a concert one week that was broadcast on the likes of MTV, VH1 and BET. The promotion helped the album to sell over 500,000 copies and go double platinum.

‘Crystal Ball ‘(1998)

This was a completely unique release for Prince, given that it was his first album released as an independent artist. No money was spent on advertising ‘Crystal Ball’ it could initially only be bought through a website (love4oneanother.com) or a phone number (1-800-NEW-FUNK). The website gave updates on the album, revealing that it would only be produced when 100,000 orders had been placed. Amazingly, the tactic – and the delayed gratification it offered fans – worked: the record sold 250,000 copies and generated $11m without advertising.

‘Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic’ (1999)

Understandably, given the success of ‘Crystal Ball’, Prince made a digital version of his 1999 album ‘Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic’ available online. The version available from his website included remastered elements not available on the physical edition. Yes: Prince was a digital native before anyone even knew what that meant.

Prince

Prince

‘Rave In2 The Joy Fantastic’ (2001)

Notice that subtly different title? This alternative version of the previous album wasn’t released commercially. Instead, Prince and his label NPG launched a subscription service on the ‘NPG Music Club’ website, which issued the album via mail to ‘Premium Level Subscribers’. Sort of like Spotify, but in real life.

‘The Rainbow Children’ (2001)

‘The Rainbow Children’ was another Prince release that, as per his wishes, received minimal promotion. In fact, he actually scooped himself, dropping a couple of the album tracks online a month before the album came out as a download on NPG music. This might not seem particularly noteworthy in 2018, but the streaming revolution was way off in 2001. Months before it was released, Prince previewed the album at a week-long festival at Paisley Park Studios. He sat in the audience and listened to feedback from fellow audience members, incorporating their ideas into the final mix.

‘One Nite Alone…’ (2002)

Prince’s 2002 album ‘One Nite Alone…’ was another one that solely available to subscribers of the NPG Music Club website. As a result, CD copies of the album are especially rare.

‘Xpectation’ (2003)

Prince’s first instrumental album came as a surprise: it was released on MP3 on New Year’s Day. What a lovely way to help members of his fan club usher in the new year! The world didn’t see the artwork until 2015, when the album came out on TIDAL. Okay, you’re right, no-one’s seen the artwork.

‘N.E.W.S.’ (2003)

Infamously recorded in a single day, Prince’s 2003 album ‘N.E.W.S.’ is also notable for being his second instrumental album. A few days before the release, the NPG Music Club website launched a chat room that allowed users to stream the first official track and discuss its merits.

‘Musicology’ (2004)

‘Musicology’ was first released as an MP3 downloads on NPG Music Club. It went on to become his most successful release in years, largely thanks to his Musicology Live 2004ever tour, as 400,000 free copies of the album were handed out to attendees. Imagine the rush at the merch stand!

Prince exhibition London

Items will be leaving Prince’s Paisley Park for the first time since his death

‘3121’ (2006)

Having taken inspiration from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (where else?), Prince released his 2006 album ‘3121’ with seven ‘purple tickets’ included. Lucky were given the opportunity to attend a semi-private (celebrities also attended) performance by Prince at his Los Angeles home. No, we don’t know if Augustus Gloop was there.

‘Planet Earth’ (2007)

In 2007, Prince’s management struck a deal with the Mail on Sunday to release his latest studio album  as a free cover mount CD in their paper. Every attendee of his Earth Tour in the O2 Arena through August and September also received a free copy. After Columbia refused to distribute the album in the UK, HMV made the groundbreaking move to sell the Mail on Sunday in their stores, making the album available to customers.

‘Lotusflow3r’ (2009)

In December 2008, Prince launched a website to generate excitement for his 2009 album ‘Lotusflow3r’ by launching a website that offered an instrumental of a track. This was later replaced with the finished track. The following month, he launched the Lotusflow3r interactive website, giving fans the opportunity to listen, watch and buy music and videos of Prince. The website was often updated with new songs, samples and interactive content for listeners. Prince also previewed songs on indie radio stations, continuing to look for non-conventional ways to release music. On release, the album was made fully available on the LotusFlow3r website, as well as an exclusive Target release.

’20Ten’ (2010)

Following the success of 2007’s ‘Planet Earth’, Prince again released the 2010 album ’20Ten’ as a free add-on to various European print titles, such as Daily Mirror (UK), Daily Record (Scotland), Het Nieuwsblad (Belgium), Courier International (France) and Rolling Stone (Germany). Prince gave an interview to the Mirror explaining his decision, and over 2.5 million copies were distributed. Overall, the project, like everything on this list, indicated that Prince was ahead of his in time understanding the more fluid way in which music would come to be distributed.