April 25, 2016

Prince: A genius who played to his own beat

Posted in Sunday Business Post · 46 comments ·

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.

  1. Lius


    It’s all about music with you now. Where is all the economic doom & gloom that we love to read about.

  2. mishco

    Prince stood on the shoulders of Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, among others, in the struggle for artists’ rights, both social and commercial. What I can’t understand is that I know so many of their songs, but so few of Prince’s. I guess there is a time in your life when receptivity to pop is at its best!

    As for the idea that with the advent of the internet “the commercial winners are the owners of the platforms that host the music”, I don’t really buy that. Many artists (such as Bry) use these platforms themselves to promote their work directly to the public, from launch through to sale (or free download), and they too are winners. Where there’s great artistic work going on there has and always will be the commercial middlemen. The key thing is for the artist to get their fair share, and to avoid being taken for a ride.

  3. Pat Flannery

    Lius: in fairness to David this is very good economic comment. He pointedly describes the current economic model being pushed around the world by ”the owners of the platforms” like Google that ”monetises the content by selling ads around it”.

    That economic model is very destructive of cultural content of all kinds. Only crass ‘commercial’ content will filter through. Our new cultural god will be statistics of hits on the Internet, if it is not already so.

    • Lius

      @Pat: Sure it’s only a bit of craic, it’s another good article apart from the omission of doom & gloom.

      • Pat Flannery

        Then I provided the doom and gloom :) Yes, good article.

        • Funny, I thought David was the promoter of green shoots and economic recovery leading to a demand for increased wages and redistribution of wealth..

          • Pat Flannery

            Tony: David could be forgiven for thinking of his own future as a writer. Right now his bread-and-butter is two weekly columns for two print publications, The Sunday Business Post and the Irish Independent, which he reposts the following day on his blog for our amusement.

            David is probably concerned that Irish print newspapers will go the same way as print is going around the world – out of print. The new online media are behaving like music distributors and all other online content platforms. It will probably take a little longer in Ireland because Ireland is slow to change, but it will happen.

            David is right that Prince’s fight is only starting. He is right that Prince ”was a commercial warrior as much as a cultural phenomenon”. David is right to worry about he is going to get paid for his creative writing in the new online world.

            Perhaps he could start by upgrading to WordPress 4.5 and putting in multi-media and hyperlinks in this blog. That is where the future is.

  4. Artists go on the road now to make their money and rightly so, rather than selling millions and millions of pieces of overpriced plastic – that is no more their music than the advertising content you reference David. If they can’t earn their crust by live performance then they are not good enough – whittle them down – there’s too much crap music in the world in any case. It’s not the end consumer’s problem if the artists can’t monetise their content – it’s up to them to find a better model and right now live performance is it – although virtual reality performance may become a feature in the very near future – an once more they will be able to stay put in the studio and cream it in.

  5. Not so strangely, I had never heard of Prince until this last week. I guess I had my head buried in the sand or I was too busy in the 80′s extracting myself from a 23% mortgage that circumstances contrived to almost bankrupt me.

    Then raising a family by working a steady 70 hour week from there through the 90′s was the sacrifice made by a single wage earner.

    The Plaudits proffered to the memory of Prince are outstanding but having missed his entire career I have nothing to be sad about.

    For me he just did not exist. Blame the economy if you wish but I was busy doing other things for which I have great memories. Each to his own. Different strokes for different folks.

  6. Truthist

    Quote ;
    “As a musician, he was dazzling, subversive and sexy.”

    Truthfully, Prince, & his music, & his videos, came across as very homo-sexual or perhaps bi-sexual.
    Subverting that was.
    And, he tried to do it with a considerable amount of dazzle.
    And, he was sexy for whoever was impressed with that aul tosh.

    Personally, I would be more interested in his actual music ;
    Did it have good melody ? ;
    Could u easily remember it so that u could whistle it down the street for ur own enjoyment ?
    Some of Prince’s songs ; Yes.
    “Some of some of” Prince’s songs ; Yes.
    Alas, Prince was no Burt Bacharach or Lennon or McCartney or Harrison.

    Reflecting again on that concept “subversive” ;

    Did Prince personally raise the topic of the Bankster Scam Bundle [ B.S. Bundle ] to his captive audiences ?
    U know, that aul mularky where :

    the government is not allowed to issue its own currency

    the country’s private central bank — & it of the Rothschild’s “International Bank of Settlements” syndicate — instead issues the currency to the government, & the commercial banks of the country, as a loan to be paid back with interest.
    And, this currency that they issue, well they just invent it from “thin air” / “nothing”.

    the commercial bank then through a particular scam known as Fractional Reserve Banking then can loan out 40, or more, multiples of the deposits in its reserves to its borrowers.
    And, with interest to be paid on those loans too.

    And, there is much more to the BS Bundle.
    But, we keep it short & simple here.

    Was Prince a “real” subversive ?
    a meaningful protagonist against the rotten system ?
    a protagonist who was making sincerely trying to “add” to civilisation ?
    an additative ?
    a la
    Irish Republican freedom fighters — e.g. Michael Collins RIP — sincerely trying to add the North of our country to the South of our Country.

    Or was he simply another corrupting poser offered to us as part of the “Bread & Circuses” ?

  7. redriversix

    Good afternoon Class.

    I trust you all had a wonderful weekend..?

    “I see McWilliams you had the usual wasteful weekend ,filling your head with musical nonsense”…

    “perhaps if you had studied harder in Trinity you could have been a Barista or your own Spar shop be now ..instead of wasting your life as a economist, I had such high hopes….

    now,back to more important things…track suit or shorts ?

    History channel or a place in the Sun ?

    everything else is tickety boo…Country is fine…Health is fine Michael O Leary is fine..Banks are fine …Politicians are fine

    How are you ?

  8. dwalsh

    Personally I never liked Prince’s music. But that is a preference issue. I could hear & see how excellent he was as a musician and performer. It was just never my thing. His death relatively so young was still a shock.
    Quite a list is building for 2016. Who’s next?

  9. sravrannies

    Off topic I know but had to share:

    “last month in Ohio…….a Federal judge ruled that rents tied to gold clauses are now once again legal after nearly 80 years of being deemed null and void following the confiscation of gold in 1933.”


  10. Also off-topic but culturally related, I was over in Montserrat again on Friday night just for one night and I met the guy who organizes the week long festival on the island at St. Patricks every year.

    He wants me to help him get more people down from Ireland for the event, I highly recommend it. I met two lads from Galway this year who came off their own backs and had the time of their lives.

    Anyway, seeing as I’m in Ireland about 4/5 months a year, I think I can help out so let me know if any of you are interested in coming next year or subsequent years.

    Plenty of music there, local music, international artistes come over (e.g. Jamaicans) and also The Martin Healey band from Ballyfermot make the trek every year – I sang a few numbers with them in Danny Sweeney’s bar this year.

    See – there’s your music for you – I told you it was only a bit ‘off-topic’!

  11. redriversix

    “Tumble weeds rolling across the plain”

  12. Prince who played to his own beat is commended. He looked after his own self interest and did not succumb to the corporist agenda.

    The same feeling and movement in the political realm is despised and discouraged by the power brokers who prefer the corporist/fascist model.

    This is the power struggle now taking place in the US Primaries and is also manifest in the election of the independent TD’s


  13. Home Counties Girl

    Now this is how you bang out a Prince tribute Bruce Springsteen style.
    Purple Rain in Brooklyn a few days ago :-)

  14. Truthist

    “… we went to see him precisely because he was filthy ?”

    How did he compare to the later experience of the filthy Central Bank ?

  15. Truthist

    http://www.aanirfan.blogspot.com reports on the awful childhood that Prince had.
    I am not surprised that he went through this, & obviously am sad for his troubles.
    If Prince had not suffered so, he could have been a better composer musician.


    Why don’t the rock musicians not try to emulate the greatness of the many centuries of classical european music ?
    Seek to create the truest & most wholesome of tunes.
    It is not for lack of DNA in most that they did not do so.
    Instead, they deviate more & more into the faggy & satanic genre.

    Ennio Morricone has composed both supreme rock & classical pieces.
    That took guts ; Moral courage.

    • Truthist

      Typos ;

      Why don’t the rock musicians try to emulate the greatness of the many centuries of classical european music ?

      Ennio Morricone has composed both supreme rock & supreme classical pieces.

  16. This is the sort of economic writing that should not be missed on an economic blog. The circus provided by such as Prince diverts attention from from the necessary to the passing fancy.

    If you are interested in what is actually going on in the world you will read this twice.


    • McCawber

      Makes grim reading even the first time round.
      Our government could do worse than use some of their fiscal space to buy €500bn of gold bullion.

      • Not so much Grim as I would say realistic. Forewarned is forearmed it is said. Not all is gloom and doom. Opportunities abound in adversity!!
        Jim Willie has a record of being fairly accurate in his observations.

        Governments can accumulate bullion with a simple business model of creating bullion based coins as money. Using the Hugo Salinas Price idea silver can go into circulation as an addition to the paper currency, and create a surplus as a profit which is added to reserves.

        A proposal to monetize silver coin for Ireland.

  17. Mike Lucey

    I was never too keen on Prince’s appearence / antics in the early days. Maybe it was his mixed messages but I always liked his music and have to put him up there with the greatest.

    I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Price and our Sinead had a punch up! Nothing Compares is one my all time favourites especially when rendered by Sinead.

    ‘Sinead O’Connor talks about punch up with Prince’

    OT but thought I’d mention it anyway. Just heard the news that the tweedle dees and tweedle dums have reached agreement on the Irish Water issue. It seems that according to FF the folks that have not paid their water charges will have to back pay in due course and nobody gets money back. Sinn Féin will have a field day with that result.

    I watched Michael Moore’s ‘Where to Invade Next’ a good laugh and some interesting systems around that he would like to ‘capture and bring back to the US of A’

    A taste of it can be had here,

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