When vanguardism fails, become a traditionalist. If that isn’t Prince’s motto, it could be—and that’s been true for some time now, in more ways than one. Take the legendary pop star’s distribution scheme for his newest album, 20Ten. On Saturday, he’ll releases it not through record stores or iTunes or even on a CD for purchase on a website, but by giving it away for free with the day’s copies of The Daily Mirror in England and The Daily Record in Scotland. This is hardly a new strategy for Prince: The July 15, 2007, edition of the London-based conservative tabloid The Mail on Sunday included free copies of his album Planet Earth.
Prince jumped into the Web with open arms. The problem is that once there, his lack of business acumen regularly trumped his better intentions.
What is new is Prince’s dismissive attitude toward the Web—especially given how hard he’s championed it over the years. His career over the past couple of decades has been an odd mixture of prescience and wrong-footedness when it comes to the online world. So it meant something when he told the Mirror, “The Internet's completely over. I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else... The Internet's like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated."
If you pay any attention to cultural chatter blogs, Twitter, or gossip sites, you’ve probably seen more than one person carp that much the same could be said of Prince himself. But there’s a clear sense of frustration behind that statement, and it’s borne of his often-fraught relationship with the Web.
As someone whose music made frequent and savvy use of technology—few ’80s artists utilized drum machines and synthesizers with his flair—it’s hardly surprising that Prince became interested in the Web relatively early. The Internet began to appear in his lyrics during the mid-’90s. His 1996 triple-CD Emancipation included the song “My Computer,” which opens with a sample from AOL (“You’ve got mail!”) and features the chorus, “I scan my computer, looking for a site/Somebody to talk to, funny and bright... Make believe it's a better world, a better life.” Like a lot of early adapters, Prince’s vision of the online world was benignly utopian. Surely, the people who were also wired up were more alike than not, and the tech interface would allow them—us—to find one another, exchange ideas and information, and help make a brighter tomorrow for everyone, even those without the interest, finances, or know-how to get online themselves.
Prince sings his hit 'Purple Rain'.
Well, we all know how that turned out. The virtual world is far more callous and vicious than utopians expected, with the anonymous nature of message boards, comment boxes, and un-fact-checked blogging making name-calling rampant and fostering a “firsties” culture that regularly diminishes public discourse. Surely this is some of what fueled Prince’s Mirror quote.
It’s equally likely, though, that his sour grapes come from a different place. Prince is notoriously controlling, and he saw the Internet as a place where he could sidestep the distribution and publicity machines of traditional record labels. In this he was very much ahead of his time. Though Prince won an unprecedented amount of creative control from his first Warner Bros. contract—at age 20, he was allowed to write, produce, arrange, and play everything on his albums—and his re-signing to the label in 1992 was widely reported to be worth $100 million (in reality, there were many provisos before that amount could be reached), he began to rebel, writing “slave” on his cheek, issuing half-assed vault-scrapings to finish his terms with Warner, and vocally championing Ani DiFranco for putting out her own music. (The symbol-name was adopted in the hopes that it would legally dissolve his Warner deal.)
So Prince jumped into the Web with open arms. The problem is that once there, his lack of business acumen regularly trumped his better intentions. In 1997, he put together Crystal Ball, a CD box set of tracks left off of earlier albums, and began marketing it as an exclusive to online purchasers. But Prince was still bound by the major-label mentality he decried, refusing to press the discs until he’d gotten 50,000 orders; when the discs were finally ready, some 5,000 orders were lost, and people who’d paid good money for the box were left in the lurch—unlike the people who could just buy it in stores, where Crystal Ball became available despite Prince’s prior vow to the contrary.
This would not be the last time he began a Web venture with gung-ho spirit and left it with a shrug. More than once, Prince has started sites promising extra goodies to the faithful—most recently in 2009, when LotusFlow3r.com launched. Pay $77, it promised, and not only would you get Prince’s triple-CD of the same name, but also a steady stream of extra video and audio material—including, it strongly hinted, classic live performances and oft-bootlegged studio outtakes. A year later, the site disappeared—and, The Wall Street Journal’s John Jurgensen reported in April, so did another $77 from several subscribers’ credit cards, when LotusFlow3r automatically renewed their memberships.
It hasn’t helped that Prince has regularly sent cease-and-desists to fans and websites for using his image without permission. Obviously, issues of copyright come into play with images as well as music. But Prince’s controlling tendencies have made moves like that look churlish. The Internet was great when Prince felt he was in charge of it, but when people get ideas of their own, he is petulant in response.
Yet this isn’t altogether surprising. The most obvious parallel is Prince’s music itself. Beginning with 1980’s Dirty Mind, Prince moved away from the large-band arrangements that dominated ’70s R&B and funk, favoring a leaner, more synth-heavy sound, artistically pacing ’80s pop and threatening Michael Jackson as the decade’s biggest crossover star with 1984’s Purple Rain, which has sold 15 million copies. But by 1991, with Diamonds and Pearls, he moved deliberately back toward the thicker, live-band sound he’d rebelled against. Partly you can see this as him keeping up with the times—hip-hop was on the rise, fueled by ’70s funk samples. But it was also a curmudgeon’s response to changing times; by 2004’s Musicology, he was telling Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen, “I see it as my duty to school young people coming up.” Prince isn’t the first musician to respond to no longer being on the cutting edge by turning into a purist. But he’s one of the first to adopt that attitude toward the Internet as well—which, in some strange way, makes him a pioneer yet again.
There hasn’t been an announcement of a U.S. release for 20Ten, though the rumor is that he's talking (oh the irony) to Warner Bros. about releasing it here. Without a solid plan in place soon, it’s obvious that most Yanks will hear the album via… a Web leak.
Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Sign ‘O’ the Times (Continuum, 2004), part of the “33 1/3” book series, and writes columns for The Stranger, Cowbell, and Flavorwire. He lives in Brooklyn.