If you’re a regular reader of, well, pretty much any blog, you probably heard about pint-sized funkster Prince‘s recent comment that “the internet is over.” This comes as news to anyone who doesn’t use AOL discs to go online.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that it seems unlikely that the most powerful communications platform in history is just a fad. Sure, the telecoms want to control the internet (don’t worry, they pay me to stave off this dystopia), but unless you have an address in North Korea (or sadly, some parts of the US), the web is an integral part of your life.
So what the hell is The Purple One talking about here?
Well, like some artists, Prince equates the internet with a loss of control. Digital technology has made it impossibly easy to reproduce and access music without permission from the copyright owner, which in turn, has undermined longstanding business models. On the other hand, the web has ushered in an era of innovation and put the means of promotion and distribution in the hands of the creator. Never before have artists had so many tools at their disposal to reach potential audiences. Sure, it’s a noisy marketplace with no fixed rules about how, where (or even if) you’ll make money. But most of the musicians I talk to wouldn’t want to go back to the old era of bottlenecks and gatekeepers, where only a small handful of artists even had a shot at being heard. Is the digital era perfect? Hell no. But what era is?
The weird thing about Prince’s anti-internet attitude is that it runs counter to how he initially approached the web. When the internet first became a “thing,” there were two big-name artists who seemed to recognize its potential: David Bowie, who’s always ahead of the curve, and Prince.
Back then, Prince was embroiled in a pitched battle with his record company that resulted in him doing wacky things like changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and writing the word “slave” on his chiseled cheekbones. Like many artists, he was angry at what his label was paying him in royalties. But what really got him steamed was that the suits were setting limits on his creative expression. Meaning, they didn’t want his next release to be a quadruple-album, or they had reservations about his desire to release music on his own schedule, not theirs. You see, record companies operated on the principle of scarcity, and it was bad business to flood the market with multiple releases in the same window. You wouldn’t want to confuse the customer, who were clearly simpletons. This approach did not jive with an artist as prolific as Prince.
The internet allowed Prince to open up his vaults and make direct contact with his devoted fanbase. For a while, things went just fine, with Prince leveraging this technology to sell limited-run items, access to digital downloads and premium concert tickets with a few extra perks. You know, pretty much what every band in existence does now. But somewhere along the line, Prince soured on the whole online thing.
It’s not like the guy was anti-technology. Just listen to his classic recordings — he used and abused every drum machine and synth he could get his hands on in the pursuit of new sounds and textures. But lately, he’s rejected even musical machinery, saying that it robs songs of their soul.
But why go picking on the internet?
Maybe he’s pissed that unlawful filesharing means his catalog doesn’t sell as well. But he wasn’t happy with the royalties the label was paying him for the copyrights he transferred to them anyway — why not just make some new music and sell it directly to a global audience online? Hell, with a vault like his, he probably doesn’t have to ever write a song again!
There’s no doubt that Prince hates piracy. But is that the whole picture?
Let’s look at a couple of his quotes from the UK rag that published the story:
“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.”
What Prince really seems really pissed at is that nobody’s giving him advances anymore. He has to stock stuff at iTunes just like every other indie schlep and let the market dictate demand.
His comments seem especially ridiculous considering how long he spent railing against the old system which DID pay him advances for his work. Maybe the record company wasn’t even the bad guy (for once). Prince likely kept demanding bigger and bigger advances, even after his popularity peaked. Yet his albums sold fewer and fewer copies, making it harder for the label to recoup costs. Blew the advance money on diamond-encrusted platform shoes? That’s your problem, dude.
So what’s Prince’s alternative to this brave new online world? Well, a few years ago he released an album that came free with the Sunday edition of a UK newspaper. A novel enough strategy, and at least he got that advance. Later, he tried a retail exclusive (like a lot of older acts) at Best Buy. By then, however, big box tie-ins were pretty much dead, and the album sold very poorly. (It also sucked majorly.) For his latest release, Prince is back to bundling his CD with European newspapers. I guess there’s a perverse logic in tying an obsolete format to a dying industry.
Prince’s refusal to play nice with the web only makes things harder for him. It’s not like his new tunes will get any radio airplay. And, as he himself mentioned, MTV is done. The internet is one of the few places an artist like himself can still create a buzz. And the best part is, it’s global. Prince has fans all over the world who are just dying for a way to get close to him. Surely there’s money in that.
But it’s not all about the Benjamins. The real tragedy here is that younger generations will be less likely to encounter Prince’s genius. As a fan and fellow musician, I find this to be sad. Art is nothing if it isn’t allowed to influence other artists. By shitting on the main tool kids use to discover music, Prince is ultimately diminishing his own legacy.
But he’s not wrong. Not exactly.
The idea of copyright is to give the creator a limited monopoly on his or her work. “Limited” means that at some point the work becomes part of the public domain, where it can be used by others to further enrich culture. In bygone times, works in the public domain were often inaccessible due to the high cost of printing and distribution, not to mention limited physical space to house the material. Digital technology changed all this. These days, keeping something “in print” costs nothing, which theoretically means a more robust creative commons.
This isn’t necessarily the case, however. Extensions to the terms of copyright have kept works from entering the public domain well past the creator’s lifetime (or even that of his or her offspring). Such extensions are the result of intense lobbying by companies that were granted “transfer” by the creator, possibly in exchange for an advance. Keep in mind that before the internet, pretty much the only way to get your stuff to the masses was to sign away your copyright — often from a position of marginal leverage.
Copyright also gives the creator the ability to say no. As long as you hang on to it, you are the one in charge of how, where, (or even if) your work is used. At some point it becomes part of the commons, but until then, you’ve got the monopoly.
The downside of the internet, which puts “copying” in the hands of the average person, is that the creator loses the power to say no. Once something exists online, it’s essentially out of the artist’s control. Some creators like this, because the “viral” nature of the web means infinite promotional potential. The resulting brand awareness can be harnessed to sell “scarcer” products, like limited edition vinyl, premium concert experiences, or even more downloads.
Prince isn’t into that shit. And that’s his right.
I personally think he’s being stupid and shortsighted, but hey, he’s the creator. Until he transfers his copyright for one of those tasty advances, copyright law says he gets to call the shots.
Of course, a limited monopoly on copyright is not incompatible with a limitless monopoly on idiocy.