Prince vs the Internet: Why His Fight for Art Mattered

The story of an icon who took on the World Wide Web.

In the wake of the incredibly tragic news of his death, a plethora of writers have paid homage to Prince’s historic musical journey, and thoughtfully considered — as is only human to do at the end of such a celebrated life — what the legacy of his career might be.

Fans around the world, too, have brought back the urgency and passion with which his music was routinely consumed. This week, 18 of his albums make up the top 30 on iTunes, and his singles fill all but one of the top 15 (even this could not seem to pry Drake’s “One Dance” from relevance), a true modern-day stamp of musical appreciation and communal mourning.

And yet the internet in many ways has been an unusually difficult place to honor him, considering how hard he worked to keep himself off of it. I can only imagine how many times in the past few days a troubled fan has typed his name into Spotify or Apple Music only to find that the jam they seek is unavailable. Or how many have combed through YouTube to find that his unparalleled work as a performer is almost entirely absent from there, too.

For all of the mourning and celebrating that has happened online, most of us who truly want to appreciate what he has done have to revisit old ways, just as I imagine he would have wanted; a vinyl of Sign O’ the Times on the record player in the living room, or a CD of Purple Rain blaring through the car speakers of daily commuters.

As a culture of music consumers, we tend to think about the modern accessibility of music as an outright benefit. With virtually every established and upstart musician’s full catalog at just a click’s distance, the ease with which one can find and build an audience is undoubtedly beneficial to the industry in myriad ways. Look at Chance the Rapper, for instance, who used part of his acclaimed verse on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam” to restate his commitment to free releases, even if it keeps him out of Grammy contention. (“I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free…”)

For an artist like Chance, the opportunity to spread his music freely and reach a heterogeneous audience only possible in the age of the internet has meant everything to his young career. He’s used it to rapidly fuel a movement that has him hovering just below 1.5 million Twitter followers and selling out shows across the country. Because it’s free, you can’t find Acid Rap on streaming services, but surf, and plenty of featured releases are. So when he plays a new show, it certainly helps him add fans to his base when they can look him up and quickly spin all his music without the pressure of purchase.

Chance, along with plenty of other young artists currently trending upward, should certainly see the internet as an advantage, and something to embrace rather than dismiss. But they are also at incredibly different spaces in their careers than Prince was when the internet first became relevant in the music space; when iTunes opened in 2001, Prince had already released an unbelievable 23 albums.

While Prince may have sacrificed the opportunity to engage a new audience, or allow his entire discography to be heard by those who weren’t yet invested in him enough to spend the money, his dismissal of online platforms that he felt didn’t have his best interests in mind served a greater purpose.

Last November, after gathering a handful of reporters at his Paisley Park studio complex in Minneapolis to announce his next tour, he elaborated on his storied claim from five years earlier that “the internet is completely over:”

“What I meant was that the internet was over for anyone who wants to get paid, and I was right about that,” he told The Guardian, among others. “Tell me a musician who’s got rich off digital sales. Apple’s doing pretty good though, right?”

This terrain isn’t new ground for artists to tread. Just look at Taylor Swift’s emphatic move back in 2014 to drop her entire catalog from Spotify while claiming, “Music is art, and art should be paid for.” While for an artist like Chance — who has an ever-growing audience — his objective should be simple: locate and reach as many listeners as possible. Thus, for him, while the checks he could get from selling his music could help, the ultimate pay-off was a larger base thanks to his marketing move. In that sense, keeping his work free (or basically so if you count the minuscule Spotify per stream payout) was more valuable for him. But for already established artists like Prince, to watch the art-form he’s already made his life’s work suddenly become cheapened and considered less worthy of substantial payment could only be seen as disparaging.

The other side of the internet’s impact on music has to do with how it is consumed. While presenting the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2015, Prince smiled and slowly stated, “Albums still matter… like books and Black lives, albums still matter.” Prior to the rise of music consumption on the internet, I imagine that listening to songs without the context of albums was far less common. Sure, artists still had single releases, and listeners could determine on a CD or a vinyl or a cassette what their favorite songs were and skip over filler tracks, but the products themselves that listeners purchased and made decisions from were, in most cases, the full bodies of work that the artist had created.

In today’s world of streaming, artists frequently release projects that are never heard in full, or are listened through once and promptly divvied up into separate play lists, never to be heard again in the way the artist intended it. This has hurried along a rapid devaluation of the album in music, as the marketplace itself now is more conducive to an artist like Fetty Wap, whose self-titled debut album, in my opinion, more resembles a collection of singles than something greater when taken as a whole.

If artists continue to adhere to new-age music consumption — consider that just before iTunes’s launch, most people still got new music by purchasing albums in CD stores — then what is to happen to the artist who still appreciates album-length content? At what point will this trend either convince more accomplished artists to reconsider their musical approach, or render them less relevant and outsiders in the industry?

While there are some artists of great importance in today’s world — Beyonce, for one — that have shown they are capable of usurping some of the traditional record label procedures in favor of delivering music in more authentic ways, the impact of that alone is relatively minimal compared to the entire ecosystem that Prince was fighting against in his well-addressed custody battles with record labels for the rights to his music.

While Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, among others, have been able to skip some of the red tape around single releases and promotional launches, their music is still most often being consumed in ways that depreciates the value of what they’ve created. Take a look at To Pimp a Butterfly. When I first heard the emphatic chant of “Alls my life I had to fight” on “Alright,” it directly followed the calculated despair of “u,” the track directly preceding it. And that order matters to Kendrick, and to the album’s narrative. The same song is currently on a Spotify-curated play list entitled “Like Allen I.” — a play list with the description, “Crossover songs that transcend the hip-hop world.” If you listen to this pla ylist in order, you’ll hear that same emphatic chant, but this time it comes after listening to the closing, “ba-ba-ba-da-ba” of Bebe Rexha on G-Eazy’s “Me, Myself, and I.” Occasionally, this might be OK, but when you see that this play list has 281,000 followers, and that “Alright” and “King Kunta” (another song frequently found in crossover play lists) both have over 50 million more plays than any other song on the album, we start to understand why Prince cared so much about this. An album that was so deliberately pieced together as part of a collective listening experience is getting spliced and split into separate experiences so drastically different from what Kendrick produced.

Prince may be one of the only artists in the world right now whose work is primarily heard in the context and order he originally intended, rather than in some other fashion. Consider the power of that. That the time he spent wrestling over the order of the track-list has meaning just about every time someone hits play. That the time he spent working with engineers to get the quality right pays off. We can surmise that Prince cared so deeply about the craft of musicianship that he didn’t want it heard in any environment or space that he couldn’t cater directly to his liking, hence the success of his partnership with Tidal, where he transformed aspects of their platform to meet his specific needs.

In an interview with Ebony last August, Prince had this to say about why Tidal had worked for him:

“We’ve changed the format of how our music appears. Where it would normally say ‘RELATED’ and have a bunch of random stuff pop up — I love D’Angelo but he’s just getting started, he came way after — what we did is we changed that to INFLUENCES. Then all these black and white pictures come up and you can go back and look at all the people who influenced me. Then in each one of those situations, Tidal allowed us to go and work on those pages. That’s the problem with these formats is that there’s a lot of laziness out there. They have to do so much, so a lot of times it’s just a program. It’s an algorithm. I didn’t want to be a part of that.”

In coping with Prince’s loss, we will certainly all reflect upon the importance of his music and how it will live on in so many meaningful ways, but I also think it is essential that we remember the man who advocated so forcefully to preserve artist’s rights and the value of music. His blueprint is not a reasonable guide for just any artist at any part of their career to follow, but it is one that could become increasingly necessary as we see how the grasp that the internet has on the industry continues to impact music and musicians in the coming years.

Among so many other gifts, what Prince has left us with is conceivably more than just a subtle warning of how the internet has the capacity to radically change the way that we consume music, and as a result, the way that artists create. Who again, in his tremendous absence, will be prepared to take a stand as powerful as his?

(Photos from top: Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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