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Oh boy, Prine comes out from under the covers

By Joel Bernstein, November 1999

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Prine's early classic tunes don't get as much cover action as they deserve. "Paradise" was a minor hit for Lynn Anderson in the '70's and has gotten other covers, with its somber lyric masked by a lively melody.

Of the likelihood of any mainstream country artist today covering gems like "Sam Stone" or "Hello In There," Prine says, "They're not feel-good party songs."

As one of the very first artists to graduate from being on a major label to running his own label, Prine could be considered an expert commentator on the changes taking place in today's marketplace.

When it's suggested that the rise of the Internet makes it easier for artists to start their own label, he says "Yeah, if they get it off the ground. The hardest part is getting good distribution. A lot of 'indy' labels are actually funded by major labels. We started in '84 and went through a lot of distributors. You have to be able to find some people who will actually pay you."

"We found some things we could put out every six months, like the Mountain Stage shows. Distributors want something fresh in, and it could be five years before I put a new record out."

"It's getting easier now to actually sell your product through the Internet, but it's harder than ever to break a new artist. When I got started, you just needed a handful of really good songs. Now you need management and money for a video. There are probably a lot of talented people (who never get heard) who don't want to go through that. I already had a good following when I started the company. If you're starting off from ground zero, I don't know where you go to sell your record."

"There's no question in my mind that this is better. I couldn't imagine ever going back to a major label," Prine says. "They're good at, if you can sell a million records they'll sell two million for you. They didn't understand what I was doing, so why should I work for them?"

However, it's not enormously lucrative. "If I made as much as I thought I could, I'd probably be retired. It's mainly self-supporting. But I own the masters (of his Oh Boy albums), and I own all the publishing."

As for the artificial categories major labels thrust artists into, "They've always done that. It's not something I do myself. They've got to do it to market you, but I'm not into marketing."

It's hard enough for a John Prine to get exposure today. "The record's doing pretty good, but I'm not sure where it's selling. Initially to my hard-core audience I suppose. I don't really think about that while I'm making a record."

The album ranks high on the Americana chart (reaching number one in fact), but like almost every artist we talk to Prine has no idea where those stations are. "We promote to anybody that'll play it. Some parts of the country have more stations than others. "You never hear 'Welcome to Americana Top 40.' I think you have to go to Gavin's living room."

Prine's take on today's mainstream country is that "they're missing the whole boat. Most of it is mediocre pop records or mediocre rock songs of the '70's. The songs all have the same story. They're children, they get married, and then they die. My wife calls them 'three-layers.'"

Prine's bout with cancer has given him a new perspective on life. "My life was already pretty good. It magnifies everything. I've got two baby boys, a nice wife, a nice house. Now it's even better. It makes you appreciate things more."

"I want to buy a house in Ireland. That's my goal. My wife has only been here five years. We take the babies over there a lot. Other than that, I'm fine. Eventually I'll write another dozen songs and make a record, and I'll be excited about it at the time. After 30 years, I've learned not to force (songwriting). I'll write when I'm inspired to write something. When I'm writing a song, I have no idea where the next one's coming from."

"I'm going fishing over the weekend with my brother, and right now I'm more excited about that."

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