As many people know already, much of Prince’s iconic catalog was recently made available to stream on all major platforms, after previously living exclusively on Jay Z’s TIDAL service. As a major fan of Prince, I was inspired to scour through the web for interviews of one of my personal heroes. In my search, I stumbled on an hour-long interview given to Tavis Smiley during the time when Prince had changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and was mostly known as “The Artist”. I had seen portions of this interview previously, but never in its entirety.
The interview is an important one because Prince is very candid about his views toward the business model of the traditional music industry, the importance of artists owning their masters, and his pioneering vision for independence. In one segment of the interview, he is asked about his declining record sales since leaving the Warner Brothers label, to which he responded “I sold 200,000 copies of Crystal Ball at $50.00 a pop. You can do the math on that.” Of course, I did the math, and if Prince was telling the truth, that’s a whopping ten million dollars! So, I decided to investigate the claim.
Crystal Ball was a 3CD box set released in 1998, and his first fully independent release since leaving Warner Bros (his previous effort, Emancipation, was distributed by EMI). The album was initially only available by phone order, and the original set contained 5 discs (including 2 bonus discs: an album called The Truth and an instrumental album by the NPG Orchestra called Kamasutra). In addition to direct phone order, the album was distributed to select retail stores after 2 months. As for Prince’s claim of selling 200,000 copies, research suggests he is not far off. Publicly available Nielsen Soundscan reports show that Crystal Ball sold at least 113,000 copies. Soundscan reports did not always account for international sales, and many direct-to-consumer sales (like Prince’s phone order system) also routinely went unreported. Given these facts and Prince’s determined stance against traditional industry norms, it is well within reason that he sold the 200,000 stated copies, bringing in gross revenues of about $10 Million.
While Prince was already a well established global icon in 1998, it is important to note that he accomplished this feat well before the days of iTunes and the digital revolution (though he clearly saw it coming). If Prince was able to do this back then, independent artists certainly have the ability to do the same now. We’ve seen it recently with artists like Nipsey Hussle, who sold 1000 copies of a limited edition mixtape for a whopping $100 each in 2013. The moral of the story is that when you control the rights to your music, it only takes a little creativity to make a huge impact on the world, and also on your bank account.