Sign of the Times

November 30, 2016

Visual Designer and Art Director Sam Jennings worked for Prince for nine years, starting with the project at the end of 1998. After several websites, he led the launch of the NPG Music Club in 2001, the first online music subscription service. Tom Krackeler and Rachel English had a chance to talk with Sam on the official Zuora podcast, “Subscribed.”

Thanks for joining us, Sam. I wonder if you could give us some background on how NPG Music Club came together, and how Prince viewed the Internet back then?
At the time, Prince was in a position where he was basically an independent artist. He had broken away from his music label, Warner Brothers. Throughout the 90’s, it had kind of been a consistent story for him that he was breaking away from the music industry, wanted to do things on his own, wanted to take as much control away as he could from people he felt that didn’t have his best interest in mind.
When the Internet became commercially viable, I think his first thought was: this is a perfect vehicle for me to reach my audience, to reach my fans directly.Gone were the middlemen and the record labels controlling all the distribution channels. This was a way he could go one-on-one with his fans. I’d been working with him for a few years up until that point on websites. It was definitely a topic of discussion at the time: how can we turn this into a business? How can we take his music, reach the fans directly, and create a viable commercial model for him?
He’s an artist who was very prolific, he was always recording, he always had new material. For someone like him to find a solid distribution model was really important. We were looking into the subscription model because at the time Napster was a big issue for a lot of the music industry. You have to remember this is before the iTunes store.

Napster! That’s such a blast from the past.
Right. The industry hadn’t quite caught up to the download model and they hadn’t quite figured out how to monetize everything yet. From our perspective, we were thinking: well, we have this music, we want to connect it directly to the fans, why don’t we present it as a subscription model, as a way to engage the audience, so it’s not just one-off files that they download to their system and then share out to Napster?
It’s more like let’s create a relationship, let’s create an ongoing experience for them, so that they want to stay a part of it. They get the music, they get the downloads, but they’re also investing in a larger experience, which is the community of subscribers themselves. The question was—how do we make them feel more like members, and less like customers?

That’s fascinating. What did the fans think of this at first? Were they on-board, were they reluctant?
The number one thing that his fans wanted was new music. As I said, there are very few artists that were as prolific as Prince. As long as we delivered on that level, the fans were going to follow us to the ends of the Earth.
They were very happy. They were getting about three or four new songs every month, live versions, remixes, all kinds of things. Plus an audio show. We called it an “audio” show but it was basically a podcast! It was essentially an hour-long radio program that Prince put together in his studio that we provided as a download. So they were getting a lot of material every month, and were very pleased with the situation.

Were you presenting NPG Music Club as an alternative to CD sales, or was this just another option, another way to connect with fans, a sort of preferred path?
It was definitely a preferred path. I think digital allowed us a lot more freedom than creating physical packages. Since some of his fans skew a little bit older, I think they liked having the physical CDs in their hands. So we were able to tell them that yes, we’ll do a big album release every year or so, but in addition to that, we’re going to provide you with all of these other materials that wouldn’t necessarily ever get released. Why? Because it wouldn’t ever necessarily be economically a good idea to print out a whole bunch of CDs that may or may not get sold! So the digital distribution model just allowed for a lot more freedom on Prince’s part.

What were you thinking of in terms of business models and monetization?
One of the things that I think set our business apart a little bit was that it was following the whims of Prince. His decisions weren’t necessarily the same decisions a company that was beholden to stockholders or something like that might make. If Prince changed his mind, we just had to make it work.
It was definitely a tricky balance between what the fans wanted and what Prince wanted. He had a tendency to want to change things a lot. He was the kind of artist who always evolved his music,always evolved his band, the people he played with in his live shows. Even with the music club, even with our distribution, he wanted to evolve that. He was like, well we did that for a year, why don’t we try something different?
All of those things were something that I, being the person that was running the operation, had to make work and try and convince the fans that, “No, this is different but it’s going to still get you what you want,” and keep them connected and involved. I think the main way that he did keep them invested was because it was that direct connection to Prince, like I was saying. They really felt like they were supporting him directly.

Today, streaming music has taken over everywhere, but you guys were truly pioneers. If you had to go back in time and do this whole journey over again, is there anything that you would have done differently?
It’s hard to say because I do feel that overall it was a success, so I am pretty happy with how it all played out. It’s interesting because at the same time I was also designing CD packages for Prince, and now, fifteen years later, the things that I have to show people are often times this physical work. The digital things kind of disappear with the wind. There’s a lot of work we did that may never see the light of day again.
I think if I could go back, I would document a lot more and keep better track of our work. I think it’s hard in the moment to realize the impact you’re having and to really document it. In retrospect, there’s a lot of things that happened that I do remember, but there’s a lot of things that happened that I don’t necessarily remember that I wish I had a record of.

These new streaming music companies—Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music—what would be the big things you would point out to them as lessons from your journey with NPG Music Club?
I’ve been talking to a lot of fans about this lately. Prince plugged his whole catalog into Tidal. I believe it had to do with what he perceived as Jay Z’s relationship with artists, and the sense that Tidal is perhaps more artist-friendly than other services. I think Prince had a sense that the recording industry had kind of caught up with digital distribution, and they controlled a lot of these channels in the same way they did twenty years ago with radio and record stores. He made the bet on Tidal, but I think his fans felt like, I’m not really supporting Prince directly. They kind of feel like, I’m supporting Beyonce and Jay Z so I don’t know if I want to give them my money every month even though Prince’s catalog is there.
I’ve always thought that a good strategy for them might be to do a white label service. For instance, if Prince went to them and said, I want to use your service, let’s white label a Prince streaming service on top of Tidal that perhaps is an extra dollar a month or something like that. It would let the fans take advantage of the infrastructure of Tidal, but create more of an experience that would allow them to feel more connected to Prince. Maybe something that he could then customize, maybe something that he could then put music into as often as he wanted to, without necessarily going through the same process as Tidal, but it would still rely on Tidal’s network and their abilities as far as streaming are concerned.
Obviously, that’s a big undertaking for anyone to take independently. Tidal is starting to do concert sales and streaming events and videos, so it seems like doing that for an artist separately, somebody as big as Prince, who has a catalog like Prince, would totally make sense. But I don’t think people want to pay for eighteen different streaming services either.

Prince was a pioneer and an innovator in so many ways. Can you give us a general sense of what he was like to work with as a creative professional?
There was always a sense with Prince, I think you find it in his music but also his business, where anything was possible. To say something hasn’t been done yet, was to just say, “That’s irrelevant. Why don’t we build it?” Like, there is no music service for artists? Well, why don’t we build one? We’ll see where it goes, we’ll just see what happens.
If you say we can’t do it, it’s like, well, did you actually try? Have you tried to do that? No? Okay, let’s try, let’s
see what happens. Maybe it will fail, I don’t know, but let’s give it a shot, see what happens. That was a really exciting experience to be a part of.
Sometimes you don’t really realize the impact you’re having at the time because you’re just doing it, you’re just trying to get to the next milestone, but looking back, I’m pretty astounded by the amount of music that Prince released independently through our club. It’s a pretty amazing volume of material.

Your story with Prince has parallels with so many of the other companies and creative people that we’ve talked to that are charting new distribution models and connecting directly to their buyers and customers. It’s exciting to live vicariously a little bit through your work with Prince and the New Power Generation, and to be a part of helping other companies do similar things here at Zuora, so thank you very much for spending time with us today!
Thank you, thanks for having me on.

Listen to other episodes of the Subscribed Podcast here!