What would you say about a pop superstar who released a new album without any hoopla at all--no single, no video, no ads, not even a merchandising display at the local record store?
Easy. Either he's crazy or he's Prince--or both.
With fans lining up each morning to buy "Around the World in a Day," the debate has already begun--is His Bad Self's latest album a psychedelic tour de force or a bizarre self-indulgence? The arguments may rage for months, but no one is going to accuse Prince's management of over-hyping this provocative new aural adventure. Although Warner Bros. has already shipped an astounding 2.7 million copies, there has been little of the familiar grind of star-making machinery that accompanies the release of such superstar projects.
As Warners creative-marketing chief Jeff Ayeroff put it: "We haven't done a thing. This has got to be the easiest album I've ever worked on."
Following strict instructions from Prince's management team, the label has taken a hands-off approach, letting the record generate its own excitement. Warners hasn't released a single from the album, nor has it taken out any ads, sent out any merchandising material or (gasp!) made any preparations, at least for the present time, to shoot a video. "Prince's management hasn't even let us run a plain old ad in Billboard just announcing that the record had been shipped to the stores," Ayeroff said. "Any merchandising in the stores is stuff they've done on their own. In a way, it's very refreshing--it's merchandising anarchy."
The Warners promotion team is taking a similarly low-key attitude. "Our response has been very enthusiastic, but we're really not pushing any particular song," said promotion chief Russ Thyret. "Essentially, we're just servicing stations with the record and letting the stations pick what they like. Personally, I think three or four cuts will eventually surface, but we're working the whole album."
If anyone's upset by this laissez faire approach, it's certainly not local stores, which said they had lines of fans waiting for them to open early last week. "We haven't had this much excitement in a long time," said Lee Cohen, an exec at the 34-store Licorice Pizza chain. "It's almost like in the old days, when the Beatles came out with an album and everybody got it at the same time."
BUT ON THE FM DIAL: Radio, easily rock's most conservative medium, has taken a typically timid approach to the new Prince disc. Many local programmers have put the record on the back burner, waiting to see what sort of audience response develops. As Paula Matthews, program director at KIQQ-FM, put it: "We were kind of nonplussed by it. We certainly didn't find anything that was so outstanding that would make us rush out and play it. For now, we're going to sit back and see what tracks do well in our research studies."
However, KROQ-FM programmer Rick Carroll was more enthusiastic: "We think it's going to be as big as 'Purple Rain.' The only record I'd compare it to is 'Sgt. Pepper's.' We're playing a cut from it every two hours."
According to Lenny Beer, an exec at MusicVision, a prominent radio promotion and research firm, the mixed radio response has largely been caused by Warners' low-decibel promotional strategy. "The Top 40 stations are practically in shock," Beer said. "For once, they've actually been forced to listen to a record. It's very confusing for them.
"Most Top 40 programmers don't really listen to new albums. The record companies send them an advance cassette with a couple of hot tracks on it and the programmers listen to 40 seconds of the song to decide if they want to play it or not. But the Warners promo men are just handing them the record and telling them to play what they like. So they're a little bewildered--they're even calling us and asking us what to play."
According to Jon Scott, another MusicVision exec, it may be several weeks before it's clear whether the album is a hit with radio or not. "Right now, it's about an even split between stations going right on the record and stations holding back," he said. "The most popular tracks seem to be 'Raspberry Beret' and 'Pop Life.' But since there isn't a single out, a lot of programmers have been very cautious about making any commitment.
"You have to remember that when 'Purple Rain' first came out, probably 80% of the album-rock stations didn't go on the record right away. They had to be convinced, and it took a long time for them to see that Prince was a viable artist."
Prince management execs would not comment.