Prince ticks off the music establishment by teaming with an unlikely ally

Never the stranger to controversy (ha), Prince has ticked off the music establishment in Britain with his plans to give away his new “Planet Earth” CD with a newspaper in the U.K. this Sunday – the paper itself sells for $2.80.

If you can get past the sad state of affairs evident in two dying distribution models (printed newspapers and physical discs) duking it out over Prince, His Purpleness has actually come up with a pretty brilliant buzz-building strategy.

According to the AP story:

The giveaway has been roundly criticized as a major blow for an industry already facing rapidly declining CD sales. It has led Sony BMG UK, Prince’s local label, to pull the plug on its own sales release of the CD in Britain. International sales launch for “Planet Earth” is July 16; the U.S. launch is July 24.

“The Artist formerly known as Prince should know that with behavior like this he will soon be the Artist Formerly Available in Record Stores,” said Paul Quirk, co-chairman of the Entertainment Retailers Association, referring to a period in the 1990s when the singer famously stopped using his name to protest a binding record deal.

“It is an insult to all those record stores who have supported Prince throughout his career,” Quirk said.

Whatever. These days music retailing is all about visibility – or so I learned from Chris “Broadway” Romero, 50 Cent’s manager, in this AdAge piece that looks at how 50 is using online avatars to promote his upcoming album. Avatars probably aren’t Prince’s speed; his fans aren’t the tweens and Gen-Yers who make up 50’s base, they’re more the Gen-Xers who actually remember Purple Rain and the Cold War.

So Prince’s newspaper ploy makes sense – particularly in London, where the papers are pretty darn visible. On my recent trip, I noticed that newspapers are a far more “in your face” affair than they are in most U.S. cities – hawkers seem to be everywhere, handing out issues for free near tube stops. There’s possibly no better way to get buzz going at the ground level than to have a CD stuck to the front of a paper like the Mail on Sunday. (This is to the chagrin of Sony (SNE) BMG UK, Prince’s local label across the pond.) I certainly saw a lot more newspaper hawkers in London than record stores.

Even Apple (AAPL), the king of digital music distribution, understands the value in a good physical handout. Everywhere I went in Europe – which was mainly Paris and Italy – I saw Coke cans emblazoned with iTunes ads promoting free music downloads.

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