Prince was an artist of such singular vision, possessed by talents so otherworldly that his being one of the greatest guitarists ever was often overshadowed by his embarrassment of other performative riches. He was a magnetizing sex alien, with a several-octave vocal range; a multi-instrumentalist who played every track on several albums; a producer of other artists' mammoth hits; an interpreter of covers superior to the original; and a writer of a boatload of the most memorable and stylistically-eclectic songs in the history of pop music.
And Prince was an outlier in another way, one that put him at odds with the entire industry of music distribution on the internet: he didn’t want any of it to be there.
Many people trying to parse their grief today by sharing Prince's music and performances online have discovered it's not very easy to do. Prince ferociously protected his copyrights, enforcing his right as an artist to control the presentation and distribution of his work. On the web, he did this by ruthlessly issuing takedowns and refusing to stream his music through any service except the flack-catching Tidal.
This is how Prince always did things. You don’t become one of the most innovative, transcendentally-talented artists ever to draw breath without at the same time enacting some controlling, perfectionist tendencies over your output. That was true of Prince from the very beginning of his career. In 1979, he spoke to the Sun Reporter about rejecting offers in the course of eventually signing his first label contract.
“I didn't take either one of them," Prince said. "Because they wouldn't let me produce myself. They had a lot of strange ideas … tubas and cellos and such. I knew I'd have to do it myself if it was going to come out right.”
A genius will not be pushed around.
Prince continued to hold this level of obstinate control through a series of escalating disagreements on terms with Warner Bros through the Love Symbol/Artist Formerly Known As Prince/SLAVE years. And he continued to carry it through as music distribution moved from compact disc to MP3 to video-sharing services to streaming platforms. In this way, Prince embodied the ongoing fight in the music industry: how can artists make a living when anyone can access their music for nothing with a click?
He did have some losses though. Via Motherboard:
The now-infamous “dancing baby” copyright case, also known as Lenz v. Universal Music Corp, came about because Prince’s label sued the family that uploaded the video of a baby dancing to his song “Let’s Go Crazy” to YouTube.
In 2007, when Universal filed the lawsuit against the Lenz family, Prince stated that he intended to “reclaim his art on the internet” and planned to sue The Pirate Bay, eBay, and others. He also hired Web Sherriff, a company that specializes in wiping copyrighted content from the web, and went about doing just that—thousands of videos with Prince’s music in them disappeared from the internet….
In Lenz v. Universal Music Corp, Prince lost, and the 29-second video of a baby dancing to a barely-intelligible Prince song went back online. A loss, and a sour one at that.
Prince presents a fascinating case in going against the prevailing wisdom of how artists should approach the Internet. The modern idea is that visibility is key, and that even if no obvious money is to be made from streaming sales that it will translate to live sales. Prince was a rare artist in possession of ownership of all his master copyrights, which meant he had total control over how and where his music appeared.
Prince was never harmed as a live performance artist despite being as close to invisible online as it’s possible for anyone to be. That's thanks to his career and reputation being built in the golden era of generous record-label backing, lavish production and touring budgets. He was sexy mf-king Prince, people would throw money at the slightest opportunity to see him play in person, no matter how hard it was to hear his music for free on YouTube.
Times are very different now. It is an opaque set of equations, to say the least, that determine whether artists and labels are making significant revenue from streaming services, or if it has a tangible knock-on effect on ticket sales, especially for new artists without a career history to stand on. For anyone who grew up in the age of YouTube, it's a fact that you can listen to any piece of music you want for free. How to fix this problem and settle on robust revenue streams that benefit artists, labels and platforms equitably is still the brass ring for the music industry and the legacy media sector most intensely affected by disruption.
Right now if you want to share a Prince video or song in tribute, there are a few floating around with view counts quickly racking up. One is the soul-searingly great 2007 Superbowl halftime show performance. Presumably in this instance, the NFL’s broadcast rights outmaneuvered Prince’s ability to keep his musical performance offline. And honestly, thank God (forgive us, Prince). Being able to watch this right now is a basic human right:
But for everything else in Prince’s catalog, for everything that made him a brilliant, indelible artist the likes of which the world will never see again, you’ll have to pay for it. And maybe the best way to honor Prince’s legacy is to do what he was asking all along: for everyone to value artists’ work.
Update: We clarified this story to say that Tidal is the only service that can stream Prince's music, as opposed to the only service that can sell it.
Elmo is a writer with Real Future.