Tuesday, July 6, 2010

It's hard out there for a Prince (fan)

If you know me, you know that Prince is one of my biggest musical heroes. I love the little guy, but oftentimes he just says or does ridiculous shit (especially true of the last decade). The latest hubbub making the rounds on the web is no exception, unfortunately.

In an interview with the UK's Daily Mirror, the Purple One had this to say:

"The internet's completely over. I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won't pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can't get it.

"The internet's like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good.

"They just fill your head with numbers and that can't be good for you."

Yeah, tota.....hey, wait a minute. Something about that doesn't sound right. Let's see, MTV isn't hip, ok, numbers are bad, maybe, wait, what's this about the Internet being dead?

As a friend and colleague on the other side of this debate tweeted, "As a communications scholar, you should know that media forms, no matter how dominant they may seem, don’t last forever." And of course, I totally agree. At best, media evolve and merge into other forms. At worst, they die out completely.

For example, look at print newspapers. It's an industry that's been on its deathbed for the better part of a decade, a death expedited by the economic recession of 2008-present. Thousands of jobs cut, plummeting ad rates, many papers going online only or shutting down the presses completely. So here we have a perfect example of a medium that with the access and increasing portability of the Internet, has become simply outmoded.

Back to the matter at hand. The Prince of 2010 shuns web distribution of music because the Internet is "over" and "unhip." Pray tell, if you aren't distributing music digitally in 2010 (even via legal routes), where do you turn? Newspapers. I wish I were joking.

Repeating an experiment from 2007, Prince is slipping copies of his new disc 20Ten in a slew of UK-based print publications: Courier International in France, the Mirror and Daily Record in the UK, Het Nieuwblad in Belgium, and the German edition of Rolling Stone.

The irony is enough to choke upon.

Many of my geeky friends and I have been commenting on how amazing 2010 has been for music thus far. What has also been striking this year is artists' growing embrace of making their music available for free. Most often, this comes in the form of streaming. Spoon, LCD Soundsystem, Big Boi, Dead Weather, MIA, The Roots, Ratatat, Sleigh Bells - these are just a few of the artists who have made their music available free of charge online in the last 6 months, be it on their own websites, MySpace, NPR's First Listen, or some other venue. Then of course, you have artists such as Twin Sister (one of my 2010 picks) who put their latest EP up for free download (at 320kbps) ahead of its official release. Note also that personally, I've purchased all of these titles, save Big Boi, Ratatat and The Roots (and they're all great - I just haven't gotten around to them yet).

And let's not forget Radiohead's "pay what you want" experiment with 2007's In Rainbows (a model adopted by some indie folks including Girl Talk and Saul Williams). The "pay what you want" model yielded 1.2 million downloads of the Radiohead disc, averaging $8 per download (read: $9.6 million). The eventual physical release sold 166,602 in the US and UK alone (let's conservatively estimate $1,666,020 [$10/disc, of which the band sees $1-2) plus 100,000 copies of the $80 "discbox" edition ($8 million). The Internet didn't seem so 'dead' for In Rainbows. But that was a whopping three years ago. Web use and relevance really has taken a nosedive in that time period. Psych.

This makes Prince's recent statements even more perplexing. Does the rest of the music world have it wrong? Of course not. I'd venture to say it's proving rather successful, though this is pure conjecture (although it's worth pointing out that Sleigh Bells' Pittsburgh show sold out - I doubt that such bands could generate nearly the amount of buzz for themselves in the pre-web era).

The real fact of the matter is that Prince has never been able to make the Internet work in a way that is mutually satisfying to him and his fan base. I'll go polemic and say that every online venture he's embarked upon has been an utter failure. Here's a brief rundown:

This site sprung up around the time of Emancipation (1996-7). Horribly designed with no real content to speak of other than occasional diatribes that were characteristically cryptic. I also remember Prince was playing Vegas in 1999 or so, and was going to stream the whole show live, for free. Holy shit! All Prince fans ended up seeing on the web that night was an animated Windows Media Player logo. Buffering. The site closed shortly thereafter.

Crystal Ball
During Love4oneanother.com's reign, Prince released his Crystal Ball set, a 5-disc compilation of unreleased tracks and new music. Curiously, the release is now hailed as significant (as in this WSJ article from April), being one of the first major albums bypassing traditional record industry distribution and sales methods. That's not really how it played out, of course. The album was also available via Prince's now-defunct mail order service, 1-800-New-Funk. Anyhow, here was the deal - pay $65, get this exclusive 3cd set, plus 2 new cds, plus a t-shirt. It was also going to come in this innovative spherical package that somehow managed to hold the cds.

I went for it, obviously. The album was originally announced in the booklet to Emancipation in the fall of 1996. Prince also promoted it during his 1997 concert tour. Countless production and shipping delays got it to us in the spring of 1998. Even better, it was no longer an "exclusive" set. A 4-cd version hit shelves at Best Buy, Target and other major retailers weeks before fans who pre-ordered the set got theirs (more cheaply too - and with proper packaging). So really $65 got you the album later, at greater cost, plus an album of shitty new age music by Prince and a t-shirt that only seemed to come in XL. And that crazy crystal ball packaging idea ended up looking more like a puck. Prince's service also couldn't keep their records straight, levying multiple charges on a number of customers. I was one of those customers. However, they credited more orders than I purchased, so I actually profited on the deal. Sucka.

NPG Music Club
During and following his dispute with Warner Bros., Prince boasted that he envisioned a world where he could deal directly with fans, delivering music to their doorsteps, or their computers. Better yet, he raved about how much material from the Vault he could put out in such a venue. Enter NPGMC - the NPG Music Club. I believe this started in February of 2001 (I recall getting a cryptic Valentine's Day email leading up to the launch). Initially, there was a monthly membership fee of I around $100. This gave you access to content updated on a monthly basis that included live material, exclusive new music, unreleased music from the vault, videos, chats, web radio shows. You also got first dibs on concert tickets (a perk that I enjoyed thanks to a friend with a membership). It started strong. Then updates came with less frequency and volume. In light of this, in 2006 or so the fee was reduced to somewhere around $25 for a lifetime membership. This is when I figured "what the hell" and signed up. Guess what website went dark four months later?

Social Networking
Prince briefly engaged in social networking, but in a very short period of time, his MySpace and Facebook pages disappeared.

With the 2006 release of his 3121 album, Prince launched a new website bearing the album's name. Content and membership perks were to come. They didn't. The site went dark.

2009 saw the release of Prince's Lotusflow3r. Prince promoted the new album ahead of release via mplsound.com, featuring a snippet of the new record. The site closed within a month. In its wake was Lotusflow3r.com, another membership-based site. For just $77, members got a year's subscription, which included the new albums ($9.99 at Target, by the way), and regularly updated exclusive content. One problem - there was but a mere trickle of content made available to members over the course of the year. Dissatisfied fans grew even more furious when they were charged $77 for an automatic renewal in early 2010. The site went dark this past spring.


After the first few flops, many Prince fans (myself included) took the line that hey, the Internet is new - we haven't figured out exactly how to harness it. At least Prince was experimenting, right? Bucking the system? Sticking it to old man Warner?

Fair enough, but nearly 15 years later, he still hasn't made it work for him while so many others (indie and major) have. And this most often comes at fans' expense.

Speaking of which, there is one way in which Prince has mastered the web: as a means to seek and sue his fans. This all began in 1997 when Prince's legal representation began sending cease and desist letters to maintainers of Prince fansites. Infractions included posting lyrics (in whole or in part) to compositions by Prince, posting Prince's likeness (which technically are property of the photographer/publishing agency in question), and using the symbol. Yes, the symbol that Prince insisted he be addressed by, the symbol that he sent out to the press so that they could avoid referring to him as Prince.
There may have been some legitimate takedowns too (posting of music, etc.), but the fact of the matter was that Prince was going after the very folks who still found him relevant.

Then there was his more recent tirade, going after eBay, Pirate Bay and YouTube. You may recall this headscratching story from a few years back:

The woman sued Prince and UMG in response - and I believe she won (though I can't seem to find any coverage of the verdict). Coming full circle, there was also a brouhaha when Prince's cover of Radiohead's "Creep" (performed at Coachella in 2008) began making the rounds on YouTube. Prince ordered the videos be taken down, despite the fact that he has no stake in the rights of the composition or its performance. Radiohead admirably prodded him to cease the takedowns. It was a groovy cover, though.

In short, it seems to me that Prince's dismissive stance toward the Internet is a product of his inability to use it effectively. Despite all his talk of "freeing the music" and "interactivity" in the 1990s, Prince 's constant blunders on the web have led him to shift blame from his own poor business and marketing decisions to the medium itself. I can't make much sense of it beyond that. While giving albums away free in newspapers is fine, that actually costs him more upfront than digital distribution. If it's piracy he's worried about, newsflash: not creating a digital version isn't going to prevent piracy. France's Courier International will be the first to hit stands with the disc this Thursday. Let's see how many torrents there are of 20Ten by evening.

Maybe it's all a ruse, like when Prince changed his name to the symbol in 1993 for "spiritual purposes," then admitted in 2004 that it was an attempt to get out of his contract with Warner Bros. (who by the way, Prince met with recently - ostensibly to distribute 20Ten in the US). Maybe this is pulling the proverbial wool over our eyes and he'll unleash an efficient and effective digital wonderland as 20Ten begins to hit shelves/doorsteps. Maybe. But I've learned full well by now that when it comes to Prince, you don't hold your breath.


Dana Gravesen said...

Proof that everything you put on the web, stays on the web: http://web.archive.org/web/19980130101205/http://love4oneanother.com/

DDay said...

Nice analysis. I totally concur. Word!

Gonzo said...

@ Dana - thank god for archive.org. Is it sad that seeing the Love4OneAnother.com page was oddly nostalgic?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

@Gonzo - All I can say is thank you for summing up the issues with the Purple One from a fan's perspective. You managed to say in one post what I have thought for years. Keep up the great work.

Ronald said...

Hi Gonzo, interesting and accurate analysis. For me personally the "year 1" experience of NPGMC was much better, getting unreleased music and (the right to purchase...) priority seating at concerts.
In my opinion the reason that Prince related web sites never work is that they are all very much set up from a "project" mode, too much associated with his state of mind at that time. I mean: how long do you want to run a web site that's called 3121 after just one of his albums? Maybe also related to Prince's persona loosing interest in projects once they're done (also musically).