July 3rd, 2009
06:04 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China — Since the death of Michael Jackson, I’ve been thinking a lot about Prince.

Prince performs at the halftime show of the 2007 Superbowl.
Prince performs at the halftime show of the 2007 Superbowl.

That these two would weigh on my mind is unusual. As a teenager in the 1980s, you’d be more likely to find Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny, the Cure or the Violent Femmes on my turntable.

The seminal MTV moment for me wasn’t “Thriller” but the first time the psychedelic Bo Diddley riff of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” poured out of my TV. For a small-town kid stuck in the sonic prison of Top 40 pop and country radio the music was like tuning into signals from a distant planet.

And yet this week it’s Prince I can’t get out of my head. The career arc - if not trajectory - of Michael Jackson and Prince were closely matched. Both came out with brilliant career-making albums in the early 1980s. Both were credited with crossing color lines and musical genres. Both saw sales ebb in the next decade.

Musical taste and popularity aside –Jackson outsold Prince 10-times over - their careers are a contrast in two executive traits: the perfectionist versus the workaholic.

In the 27 years since “Thriller,” Jackson released only four albums of new material. Since his breakout album “1999” the same year, Prince has released 21 new albums.

While preparing his “Thriller” follow-up, “Bad,” Jackson reportedly had this note taped on his bathroom mirror –  “100 million” –  his sales goal. (The album sold well but never approached “Thriller” status.) When Prince’s album sales were at low ebb in the 1990s, he ignored industry advice and released a triple-CD of new material. When that did poorly, he followed it with a five-CD collection of unreleased songs. That also tanked.

In recent years, the music industry model has switched from album sales to live events as a major source of revenue. On this landscape, Prince staged a remarkable comeback: a nearly $90 million tour in 2004, the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show and 21-concert residency at London’s O2 Arena. Prince often follows his two-hour concerts with small-club after-shows of improvised jazz that stretches as long as three hours.

Jackson’s 50-date stand at the O2 Arena starting this summer would have been his first tour in 12 years. The start was pushed back to allow more time for Jackson, the perfectionist, to rehearse.

Post “Thriller,” Jackson’s life was tailor-made for the tabloids: chimpanzees, Neverland, dangling a newborn out of a window. His arrest, trial and acquittal on child molestation charges got more airplay than his music before he died.

Prince was no stranger to tabloids and eccentric behavior (such as changing his stage name to an unpronounceable symbol). Yet he seems to protect his private life. When Prince’s son died in 1996 from a rare disorder shortly after his birth, the singer eschewed press and sued the nannies that sold the painful details of the death to the tabloids.

Looking at the two lives, it seems to me Michael Jackson could have learned some lessons from Prince. High goals are important for career success, but pinning “100 million” to a mirror strikes me as the wrong ambition, especially in a creative profession.

Jackson and Prince both burst onto the scene when their talent and public taste happened to coincide – that rarely can be planned. While Jackson’s career got lost in “Neverland,” Prince focused on his work despite a fickle public. Fans went and then came back again – Prince’s work ethic never changed.

As a commercial act, Michael Jackson was the undisputed “King of Pop.” But as a career model, perhaps it’s better to be a Prince.

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