Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Artist Formerly Known as a Smellebrity

There was a flurry of media attention around Prince this week, in connection with an ongoing legal dispute regarding his fragrance 3121. The headline at TMZ set the tone: “Prince: Stinky Perfume Deal Could Cost Him Millions.” With the exception of Daniel Wise’s report in the New York Law Journal, most of the coverage offered cheap schadenfreude and little analysis.

Yet a look at the actual legal filing reveals quite a juicy story.

The dispute is between Prince and Revelations Perfume and Cosmetics Inc., the Pennsylvania-based company with the license deal for the fragrance. 3121 was released in 2007 and named after Prince’s 2006 album. The scent had gross sales of only $1.3 million and failed commercially. Revelations claims that was because Prince failed to promote it as he had agreed. So they sued him (and his music publisher) in 2008, claiming “fraudulent inducement and tortious interference with contract.” Revelations is on the hook for $3.9 million in production and marketing costs, which they want Prince to pay in addition to lost profits and punitive damages.

So far it sounds like a standard business dispute. Look a little closer, however, and the weirdness emerges. According to Wise, Prince’s original attorney withdrew late last year
after “complaining that the firm had not been paid “for months” and that Prince had “failed to comply with basic discovery obligations.”
After allegedly stiffing his own lawyer, Prince then failed to appear at a court hearing in New York in December. This resulted in a default judgment in favor of Revelations—with the upshot that all facts alleged by Revelations are deemed admitted. Having handed the company a victory, Manhattan Acting Supreme Court Justice Bernard J. Fried had to rule on the validity of its specific claims, i.e., figure out how much money they were owed. Here he followed standard procedure and appointed a Special Referee to look into the matter and make recommendations. It was the Special Referee’s report, made public last week, that sparked the news stories.

The referee interviewed Revelations founder and President/CEO Larry Couey. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it should. Many years ago he founded Parfums de Coeur, the outfit that marketed the much derided cheeseball fragrances called “Designer Imposters®.”
If you like Clinique® Happy®, you’ll love our Wanna Play?
After selling Parfums de Cour, Couey went on to work for other companies including Perfumer’s Workshop and Gryphon Development; the latter developed fragrances for Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works. He founded Revelations in 1998. The company’s claim to fame is Stoked, the perfume by Bethany Hamilton. [Who?—Ed.] [The surfer teen whose arm was bitten off by a shark.] [Oh.—Ed.]

As Couey tells it (and we have only his testimony because Prince failed to defend himself) he happened to meet one of Prince’s reps in L.A. and was invited to pitch a fragrance project to the Purple One in Minneapolis. There he proposed a routine licensing deal in which Prince would get 6% of net profits. Prince wanted more than that; he “countered with a proposed joint venture that included a 50/50 percent split of net profits between Revelations and Prince.”
He [Couey] recalled Prince suggested the fragrance could have exposure on the Oprah Winfrey Show or promoting it in upcoming concert tours, press releases, personal appearances and that his intimate involvement would assure success.

Couey testified it was at this first meeting where Prince represented that he would support the product in any way, shape or form. Couey responded that if Prince was willing to do the same, then Revelations was willing to do a 50/50 split of profit.
Imagine Couey’s frustration when, after Prince refused an interview with Women’s Wear Daily and to negotiate a date with the Oprah Winfrey Show, he was told by the performer’s people that “Prince does not do interviews.” Nor, apparently, does he do photos of himself holding his own fragrance, nor allow his name to be used on the bottle or outer packaging.

Unlike the absurd story of Julian “Franck” Rouas and his dealings with Joe Jackson regarding a Michael Jackson scent, Larry Couey’s account of his involvement with Prince sounds more than plausible. On the basis of Prince’s enthusiasm for the project, Couey began development work even before the lawyers had finished the formal business agreement. The timetable was reasonable, fragrance development was handed to a major house (Givaudan), and work was begun on bottle and package design. Yet even as Prince reviewed designs and perfume trials, he began to hedge on the use of his image and name.

The July, 2007, launch at Macy’s in Minneapolis was supposed to include an exclusive performance at the store by Prince. Couey was surprised to find that Prince had scheduled a full concert that day. (At the Target Center in Minneapolis, no less; the Macy’s people almost blew a gasket.) Revelations “repackaged the launch” as a ticket-with-fragrance-purchase, at a cost of $150,000 in tickets. In addition,
Couey also testified that Revelation contributed another $150,000.00, as a direct payment into an account held by Prince’s attorney, one Mr. Cousins, in Florida.
Eeuuuwww. Icky. Very icky.

Couey’s testimony to the Special Referee is the story of a business relationship gone wrong. It has a convincing nightmare quality about it—the zombies are chasing you but you are stuck in the mud. You are trying to promote a Prince perfume but the star won’t lift a finger.

A little Googling suggests a different spin. In a 2007, Philadelphia’s City Paper published an article by Ashlea Halpern called “A Hint of Paisley: How local company Revelations put Prince in a bottle.”
Couey was in California last summer meeting with the agent of one-armed surfer Bethany Hamilton, the spokesteen for Revelations’ Stoked brand, when, as luck would have it, Universal Music Group was convening next door. Couey caught wind that Prince wanted to launch a perfume named after his new album, 3121, but was unhappy with his label’s choice of company. “He didn’t want a huge conglomerate,” explains Couey, who two weeks later flew to Minneapolis to seal the deal with the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As.

“Even though he has a pretty wild persona onstage, he’s very soft-spoken, sincere and serene when you meet him,” says Couey, adding that he and the Purple One bonded immediately over their Midwestern upbringing.

Couey says it took six weeks to get the top notes right in 3121. “That’s it!” Prince finally cried, snapping his fingers. “Right there, that’s it. Done! Don’t change another thing!”

Unlike other celebrity stinkums, Prince’s name and face are nowhere to be found on the 3121 box. This is deliberate. From the start, Prince said he wanted to build the brand on its own merits, not on his Midas touch.
[Emphasis added.]
Hmmm . . . Is this Couey admitting that Prince’s name and face were, in fact, never part of the deal? Or was this Couey trying to put a happy face on Prince’s refusal to honor the deal?

It also appears this is not the first time that perfume has landed Prince in hot water. In 1995, his self-produced Go Wild came a cropper of Jackie Collins who had released her own scent, Wild, seven months earlier. She sued Prince for copyright infringement, based on similarity of the names and box design.

Prince is something of a diva, having butted heads with record labels and fans alike. But he is unquestionably a talented and creative musician. Meanwhile, the ersatz Justin Bieber has no beef with “huge conglomerates” and when his handlers request a Macy’s appearance to promote his perfume he shows up—at some personal risk!

In the end, Mr. Crespo, the Special Referee, granted Revelations’s claim for $3.9 million in net losses. He denied their claim for potential lost profits on the grounds that they basically pulled the profit projections out of their butt (he used more elegant legal phraseology). He refused punitive damages because Prince’s behavior did not meet the legal standard of morally culpable, willful misconduct, nor was it the result of evil or reprehensible motives.

Exit question: Which does Prince want more—his own fragrance or the chance to jerk other people around?


Olfacta said...

Probably the latter. He seems to inhabit his own universe.

Nathan Branch said...

Does it have to be an either/or proposition? Maybe he wants both . . .

Avery Gilbert said...

Olfacta & Nathan Branch:

He seems to be a really conflicted guy. Who knows, maybe that's part of the dynamic--the withholding vs the preening--that makes him a great stage act.

I assume that he is genuinely into fragrance. But why can't he see his way toward using his fame/image/reputation to enter the perfume game, then establish his scent genius with a second and third great fragrance?

What is he so afraid of?