When Michael Pagnotta launched his own PR firm, Reach Media, in early 1990s, Prince was his very first client. Now, more than a quarter-century later and one year after Prince’s tragic death, Pagnotta remembers, in this exclusive personal essay for Yahoo Music, a fateful day in Australia when Prince confronted him and gave him some advice that changed his life and career.
“Michael, get your pen and paper and meet me in my dressing room.”
Prince was a man of famously few words, spending most his time — and mine, when I was representing him — refusing interviews rather than granting them. But as the first anniversary of his death arrives, I have had occasion to ponder a few words he did say to me. Words that changed my life.
The year was 1992. We were in Australia as part of the Diamonds and Pearls concert tour and things were going well, at least I thought so, until Prince came up behind me one night backstage and “suggested” a meeting. Before I could even turn around to respond, he was gone, vanishing as he often did — sometimes behind a wall of bodyguards, other times into thin air, like magic, leaving you wondering where the hell he’d gone.
I’d figured out pretty quickly in my relationship with Paisley Park that the less actual personal contact you had with Prince, the better off you were. It meant he was cool with you and what you were doing. This meeting wasn’t a good sign, and I started to think about what time the next plane home might be leaving and whether or not I’d be on it.
I did as he said, and got a pen and paper and headed to his dressing room, running obsessively through every “I’m sorry and I will do better!” scenario I could imagine. Prince’s half-brother and right-hand man Dwayne met me at the dressing room door and instructed me to enter and sit. Prince would be right with me.
Prince’s dressing room was just as you’d imagine it: a serene space decked out, if memory serves, in gold statuettes, scented candles, incense, caftans, throws, carpets. Splashes of yellow, purple, and gold everywhere. Part temple, part ancient desert caravan tent straight out of Ben Hur. In the center of the room was a couch, and I sat. The seat was broken and I sunk in, feeling like I might just fall through to the floor.
After a few anxious minutes, Prince walked in, still dressed in his canary-yellow jumpsuit, do-rag, and boots from the show. The man had just performed a two-and-a-half-hour gig and he was perfectly coiffed and done up, looking like he’d barely broken a sweat. If anything, I was the one who was sweating. Prince was a small guy, but with me sinking ever deeper into the broken seat cushions like a dying man in quicksand and having to look up at him, he looked like a giant. Intimidating.
There were no pleasantries. He got right down to business. He began to shift his weight from one leg to another, in a slow, metronomic dance as he interrogated me.
“How many T-shirts we sell tonight?” he asked, staring me right in the eye.
The question surprised me. I didn’t sell T-shirts for the tour and had no access to the merch data, especially before the show had even settled. I didn’t know, couldn’t have known, but he made me feel like I should have. He was good at keeping people off balance.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly and sheepishly.
Prince let the uncertainty hang in the air for a second and started to speed up his dance, circling me as I sat, looking less like a canary in his yellow outfit than a bird of prey. He came around the front of me and stopped, looked me dead in the eye again.
“How many programs we sell?”
To say I was freaking at this point would be an understatement. I didn’t sell T-shirts or programs. Surely he knew that. The shows had sold out quickly and fans were stoked to see him and his new band, the New Power Generation. The singles were breaking strong at radio and the album was setting up to be Prince’s best seller since Purple Rain — no small achievement, and one in which I took a lot of pride. Everything was going well, including the merch sales, as far as I knew. Where he was going, I still couldn’t figure. Without meaning to be a wiseass, I answered with a clarification.
“I don’t know if you know this, but I don’t do merch for you. I do publicity.”
Wrong answer. He stopped dancing in mid-twirl, turned his back toward me, then spun suddenly around, faced me and pointed his finger accusingly.
“You trying to say that’s not your job?”
I tried to respond with something positive about what my job actually was, as far as I was concerned.
“The press has been…”
“You gonna talk, or you wanna listen?”
He slowed down his question, emphasizing each word.
“Are you trying to say … that’s not … your job?”
And then it hit me. I’d watched him record through the night, jam for hours in tiny clubs after grueling arena gigs, rehearse the horn section for two hours over four bars of music, replace band members of opening act Carmen Electra (yes, that Carmen Electra) with members of the NPG one by one, adjust the soundboard, and leave explicit Do Not Touch orders for a professional soundman he was paying to do sound on tour. In the studio, and on stage, everything was his job. The band, the instruments, the sound, the lights, the costumes, the set, the visuals. Likewise, he was saying to me that everything was my job. Performance, publicity, and programs were all connected, all part of the same larger whole. It was a true light-bulb moment for me. In an age of specialization, of boundaries, of not wanting to step on anyone else’s toes, Prince insisted on things getting done no matter who had to do it. Or how. Your job description was: everything.
“It’s all my job,” I replied simply, finally getting it.
“It’s all your job,” he repeated, flashing a sly half-smile and pointing to the door. “Bye.”
Even the conversation had been a performance for him. But a learning experience for me.
I walked out of the dressing room with my head spinning. I was a young publicist whose first client in his own business was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. I’d been feeling pretty good about myself and the way I did my job. But that conversation changed everything about the way I looked at myself and my business. There have been countless recollections from fans and critics and colleagues of Prince’s, all citing how inspirational he and his music were to them and to the world. Thankfully, the reunited Revolution and New Power Generation will keep his greatest legacy, his music, alive in the coming months and years. But when I think of Prince, it’s not only the inspiration but the perspiration I think about. For me, you can sum up his legacy in one word: Work.
I’d come into Prince’s orbit after he’d already achieved his greatest commercial and critical successes — 1999, Purple Rain, Sign O’ the Times — and just following the relative disappointment of the Graffiti Bridge album and film. It was the very early ’90s. Music was changing. Prince’s brand of funky eclecticism was on the verge of falling out of fashion. Hip-hop and grunge were taking over. A lesser artist, or less competitive one, might have thrown up his hands, given up, or given in, content to rest on a well-earned reputation. But instead, Prince changed everything.
He formed a new band, the New Power Generation, and forged a new sound — adding Tony Mosley, a rapper, to the mix, finding a place for hip-hop in his new music. He changed his image, complete with new updo hairstyle and dandified outfits designed specifically for him in his own wardrobe department at Paisley Park. Flannel shirts and baggy jeans, trends at that time, simply would not do. He brought dancers Diamond and Pearl on board to up the eye candy quotient in the “Gett Off” and “Cream” videos and in live performances. Finally he added a belly dancer, Mayte, his muse and future wife, to the NPG mix, instructing me to tell press at various tour stops that he’d kidnapped her from a foreign land.
Each of these changes were tools he gave me. Tools I used to help Diamonds and Pearls become the second-biggest album of Prince’s career. The Prince from the Dirty Mind and Purple Rain and Batman days was gone, replaced by a butt-baring ringmaster of the funkiest circus in the universe. Yes, he’d changed everything. Eventually, he would even change his name. But that’s another story.
In the end, work was the key to Prince’s success, perhaps as much as his raw talent. You don’t leave an immense recorded catalog or a vault with hundreds, maybe thousands, of unreleased songs unless you work. You don’t earn a reputation as one of the greatest musicians, stage performers, and songwriters ever unless you work.
Another client of mine, George Michael, once complained to me that Prince didn’t “edit” himself well enough, releasing too much, too fast. I think George missed the point. Sometimes, it is about output — asking your fans to drink not from a fountain, but from a fire hose. Do it, label and critics be damned, and move on to the next thing. Prince did that, whether the chart-keepers were paying attention or not, in a decades-long burst of Warholian productivity. Is there any one of us, now that he is gone, who wishes Prince had taken it all easier, had worked less?
It’s all your job. Teamwork is fine, but every team needs a leader. If you want to be successful, you have to be aware of it all, stay on top of it all, be responsible for it all, willing to do it all. That was his daunting message, and over the years it has served me well. So the words that I’d once feared might be a dire warning turned out instead to be life-changing wisdom that I have carried with me ever since. Much has been made of Prince’s media silence in those years, but that simple lesson is more memorable to me than anything he ever said to Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, or any other interview. In fact, it’s what I remember most.
When it came to business, I’m proud and humbled to say everything I needed to know about the music business, and maybe even life, I learned from working with Prince.