Well, I saw the future of music last night from a front-row seat at a Prince concert. And I’m not talking about the show; it was brilliant but mostly a retrospective revue, including performances by Morris Day and Sheila E, with everyone looking exceptionally good for their age.
But here’s the deal: Thanks to silvertide‘s timely pointer, I paid $25 to join Prince’s fan club and bought tickets through a reasonably scalper-proof system (show ID to get tix at the will-call window and proceed directly into the show). The tickets were not cheap ($90 each) but considerably less than I’ve paid scalpers in the past for good seats (but not front-row) at concerts by Bowie and others.
Here’s the kicker: on the way into the show, everyone was handed a copy of his new album, for free. Without trying too hard, you probably could have gotten two. He’s figured it out: People will pay to see you, will in fact pay for the opportunity to pay to see you, and the recorded music can take a back seat. Jam bands like Phish have been doing this for a while, but recording in general is less important to them, and I don’t think any mainstream pop star has tried this yet. (One big question is whether it would work as well were he giving away his older music; you sure didn’t see him handing out free copies of Purple Rain from which he performed more songs than he did songs from his latest album.)
But I find it heartening that “real music from real musicians”…
And what musicians! Rhonda Smith sold me her solo album as I watched her play last night. Locked in with monster drummer John Blackwell, moving from beautiful jazzy almost-fretless playing to slamming funk that made my thumbs hurt just watching her (she didn’t use a pick at all, as far as I can tell, but played down and up strokes with her thumb).
And then of course there was Maceo Parker kicking ass, leading the horn section (at one point, deservedly, in a professor’s gown), and then playing a gorgeous version of “What a Wonderful World” alone with the piano player.
Best of all, the band worked as a unit, having great fun with each other, giving each other space, and all working their asses off to support whomever was in the spotlight, whether it was Prince or any of the other band members. Everyone got significant time to step up, usually with Prince off to the side looking genuinely happy and admiring — the thrill he feels in working with musicians like that was palpable.
And … let’s not forget Prince himself. Underneath all the stagecraft and performing skills is a hell of a musician. Plenty of screaming guitar solos and pyrotechnics (and a kickass bass duet with Rhonda) but also some great funk playing (“Is that me?” he asked at one point, over a itchy rhythm straight out of James Brown’s ’70s bands), and a stunning acoustic set where his playing really shone — beautiful jazz playing, sweet chord progressions interspersed with lightning single-note runs, but also funky grooves that had people dancing on “Little Red Corvette” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Once upon a time, entire roomfuls of people danced to acoustic guitar; watching Prince, you think that the real Robert Johnson, who entertained violent drunks in juke joints for a living, might have been much closer to what we saw last night than to the reverent playing of blues revivalists.
…can be a good business model even with a fan base that doesn’t get stoned enough to think 25-minute guitar solos are a good idea.