April 25, 2016
As a musician, he was dazzling, subversive and sexy – but Prince was also savvy about the internet age and fought for the rights of the content makers
‘In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name. . .”
With these words Prince opened one of the best albums of the 1980s. Sign O’ the Times was released in 1987 when I was in Trinity buried in textbooks trying to decipher the hieroglyphics of monetary economics. I’m not sure many others learned about central bank open market operations to the androgynous but unmistakable backdrop of If I Was Your Girlfriend, but during those years of swotting, Prince was my constant companion. From Purple Rain to Parade and then to Sign O’ the Times, Prince simply dominated the 1980s, making outrageously good music, both complex and infectious at the same time, stealing melodies, creating new ones, blending guitar-hero riffs with deep R’n’B, funk and soul.
He defied labels.
Initially, for those of us whities more familiar with the electric guitar of Jimmy Page rather than the funky bass of Bernard Edwards, Prince – like Jimi Hendrix before him and Lenny Kravitz after him – built us a bridge: a black man with a ’fro playing skinny white man’s electric guitar. His guitar solos alone are extraordinary, out-Slashing Slash. But it was the funk, the soul, the outrageous falsetto and, of course, the sex that made Prince different. Back then he had an otherworldly aura around him, so much so that he was regarded as deeply incendiary, dangerous, almost pornographic.
When we made the pilgrimage from Dublin to see him in Cork in 1990, even the Bishop of Cork tried to stop the gig, citing filth. Can you think of any one thing that would have better guaranteed a full house in Cork than a bishop, in the 1990s, telling Irish youth not to listen to this infidel? Didn’t the bishop understand that we went to see him precisely because he was filthy?
Of course the performance was electric and idiosyncratic. Prince walked off stage when the crowd, dizzy from the heroics of the World Cup odyssey that was Italia 90, started an impromptu “Olé, olé olé olé!” His Royal Purpleness had obviously never heard of Jack Charlton and clearly didn’t understand that, even for us Prince fans, when it came to national affection even he simply could never take the place of your man Ooh Ah, Paul McGrath.
But he bounded back on the stage with a conciliatory “Whose gig is it anyway?” and blasted into an electric set.
Playing live was his thing, most memorably at the interval of the Super Bowl during torrential rain in 2007. However, he played all over the place, in huge arenas and in small jazz clubs. He could play anything and surrounded himself with proper musicians. To the end, he was a champion of the rights of the artist and the value of the craft of making music.
Before most artists, singers and writers copped on, he realised that the artist had to control his material. His legendary rows with his record label, Warner Brothers, centred on control as well as the timing of his album releases. The record company wanted a neat, evenly spaced schedule, allowing the company to extract as much as possible from each album before milking the fans with the next. This was how the normal commercial product cycle played out. Prince didn’t agree with this sequential approach. For him it was all about the inspiration. When challenged by Warner Brothers, Prince simply responded by telling the PR men, the accountants and the marketing executives, “For me, the music doesn’t come on a schedule.”
Prince understood that the trends in the music industry, particularly the advent of streaming, would gouge the value out of the artists and, worse than giving that value to the music industry, the internet would transfer value to the owners of platforms like Spotify, Google Play and Pandora.
At least the music industry, with its A&R men, was full of music lovers, but the streaming industry is full of techies who might not even listen to music and are only as good as the last piece of code they wrote. Indeed, the straitlaced, politically correct culture of Silicon Valley is about as far away from the promiscuous, louche world of Paisley Park as you can get, so perhaps it isn’t any wonder Prince fought to retain his rights, possibly even on his own moral and artistic grounds!
Yet the battle that Prince waged is a real battle for writers, artists, singers, musicians and anyone who would deserve to be paid for their creativity. The future of journalism is a case in point. Anyone who wants to make a living writing creatively should take note of Prince’s battles. Prince saw that by giving music away for free or almost free, the creator is simply giving the value to the music platform and this platform then monetises the content by selling ads around it. Can you think of a more debased way of valuing creativity?
So rather than pay for the content, be it music or literature, money is extracted out of the listener or reader by virtue of what skincare product they might buy or what travel insurance they might want, based on their online footprint, the details of which are then sold to advertisers.
As a result of convoluted e-commerce, lovers of an artist’s music are targeted by advertisers flogging a totally different product, based not on the music but on the demographic and potential wealth of the listener. Obviously, the commercial winners are the owners of the platforms that host the music, rather than the music maker himself.
Understandably, Prince didn’t get this and didn’t want to play this game. Can you blame him, when it’s put so plainly?
Prince was a genius, a one-man music machine, writer, musician, producer and performer and a man of exquisite taste, but he waged a war for everyone who fancies getting paid for their own creative talents. In this way, he was a commercial warrior as much as a cultural phenomenon. And in the end, his fight is only starting.