Fans Expose Crack In The Artist's Crystal Ball

Supporters on the Net say the former Prince has turned on them by selling out to retailers.

When Maria Ellicott finally got her hands on a copy of The Artist Formerly

Known As Prince's multi-CD Crystal Ball album, she was standing in

line at a retail counter rather than at her doorstep opening a mail-order

package as she had expected.

Having waited more than six months for the arrival of a Federal Express

package containing the set and a T-shirt, Ellicott decided that she'd be better off

looking for The Artist's latest offering at a local record store -- where

she found the set immediately for $10 less.

"A lot of fans feel alienated by The Artist's actions," Ellicott, 25, said

Tuesday by phone from Washington, D.C. "And I can understand where they're

coming from."

The Artist first announced that he would be releasing a three-CD set of

previously bootlegged material entitled Crystal Ball in late 1996.

He began taking orders for it through his 1-800-NEW-FUNK mail-order

organization last May, and later sold the set through his "Love 4 One

Another" website.

While many fans at first viewed the idea favorably as a way to get music

directly to supporters, many became upset when the release date was

repeatedly delayed. Others have since reported unsatisfactory service from

1-800-NEW-FUNK, including lost or doubled orders, incorrect information and

rude operators. Still more expressed dissatisfaction when the album --

originally billed as a mail-order exclusive -- began turning up in retail stores last

month, long before some mail-order customers received their copies.

Compounding the frustration among ardent fans was a recent cease-and-desist

letter sent from The Artist's attorney to a number of unofficial websites,

demanding that the webmasters remove copyrighted material (including

sounds, lyrics and photos) from their pages.

"Since the Crystal Ball fiasco and this [cease-and-desist letter]

was sent, this has left me reluctant to support his enterprises in any

way," said Russell McBee, 34, of Knoxville, Tenn., who was charged for

Crystal Ball even after he canceled his order. "At this point, I'm

finding it difficult to listen to any of his music at all. I feel personally slapped by

this."

Operators at 1-800-NEW-FUNK said the organization's spokeswoman was out

of the country and unavailable to answer questions until next week. Londell

McMillan, The Artist's attorney, did not respond by press time to an

inquiry about service and distribution for Crystal Ball.

Meanwhile, 22-year-old Erika Groff, who encountered difficulties

when she tried to order more than one Crystal Ball set recently

drafted an Internet petition to express her concerns to The Artist.

The appeal -- which raises questions about the unreliability

of 1-800-NEW-FUNK, among other issues -- has garnered more than 400

electronic signatures.

"I really hope that [The Artist] sees that so many of his real, die-hard

fans have signed this and they really want things changed," said Groff, who

lives in Northville, Mich. "I hope he'll decide to look into how his business is

run."

One person not holding out hope, however, is McBee. "I can't see defending

[The Artist's] weirdness anymore," he said. "He almost makes Michael Jackson

look normal."

Some fans, apparently frustrated by The Artist's mail-order operation, are

taking their business away from the former Prince's direct services and back to

traditional music stores. Don Ford, an assistant manager at San Francisco's

Blockbuster Music, said he has sold more copies of Crystal Ball than he

expected, in part because some people are canceling their Internet orders.

"One person said he was buying it here because the price was lower than he

could get it on the Internet," Ford said. "And I heard one other guy talking about

how he didn't want to print out the liner notes," which only come with the retail

version of the album.

Still, other fans said they hope that the controversy surrounding Crystal

Ball and The Artist's cease-and-desist order will be resolved. "We've had

plenty of controversies with Prince," said Charles Battle, 35, of Las

Vegas, who received a copy of the cease-and-desist letter and who helped

Groff draft the petition. Battle still has not received the Crystal Ball set

that he ordered last May, although he said his previous experiences with 1-800-

NEW-FUNK have been positive. "I think this'll blow over and [fans] will be back

into getting his music for the most part."