Prince really doesn't understand the internet
Prince's decision to give away his latest CD with the Mirror could turn out to be a huge commercial blunder.
Fancy picking up a copy of Prince’s new album, 20Ten, which came out this weekend? Well, you can’t, because it was released as a CD giveaway on the cover of Saturday's Mirror – and absolutely nowhere else. Prince has refused to sell 20Ten via iTunes, seeing no reason for his new material to be available on the internet at all. If you want to buy it now, or at any time in the future, you’ll either have to scour eBay – which, like the second-hand book trade, earns the artist nothing – or turn to more nefarious means, such as BitTorrent. Sound like a huge commercial blunder to you? Yup, me too.
The giveaway was hyped last week with an interview in which Prince made some telling remarks: “The internet’s like MTV,” he said. “At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated.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.”
t’s difficult to believe that statement was intended to be taken at face value, until you dig a bit deeper into Prince’s troubled history with the internet: a complicated relationship that began with utopian enthusiasm, back when Prince saw the web as the key to liberating himself from the “tyranny” of record companies, but which has ended with contemptuous dismissal.
There’s something odd about a teetotal, vegan artist – particularly one with a history of warring with record labels – hating the internet. Other music icons, like Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, have embraced the net and experimented very successfully with new distribution and revenue models, discovering armies of new admirers in the process – many of whom are more than happy to stump up for gig tickets after getting a few free MP3s.
Prince, on the other hand, has been struggling to get to grips with it for more than a decade. In 2007, he had to back down after reportedly trying to ban any images of himself or his album covers from being posted on the internet. At the time, his lawyers cited copyright infringement, but fans were confused and angry, and eventually AEG, Prince’s promoter, was forced to issue a clarification. It was only a couple of pictures from a recent live performance they were going after, they said.
That’s not the only example of the artist’s robust attitude toward online copyright: earlier the same year, he announced he was suing YouTube and eBay for not filtering his copyrighted content before it appeared online. But wiping anything off the face of the internet is impossible, and often spectacularly counterproductive. Barbra Streisand once tried to censor an aerial photograph of her home by sending out intimidating cease-and-desist letters; in defiance, internet users replicated the picture far and wide, so the picture reached many millions more than if Streisand had done nothing. (That phenomenon is now called “the Streisand effect”.)
Prince’s most recent internet gaffe, a promotion for his 2009 album LotusFlow3r, saw fans’ credit cards charged recurrent $77 subscription fees for a website that had been taken offline. It seems as though Prince, having had his fingers burned one too many times, is now heaping opprobrium – and lawyers – on a medium he was once wildly enthusiastic about.
Perhaps Prince hasn’t been paying attention, but the recording and motion picture industries have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years discovering that there are much more sophisticated and effective ways of combating piracy, and that heavy-handed legal tactics simply don’t work.
File-sharing is a fact of life. There was no need for fans to slink up to their local newsagent counter on Saturday, mumbling apologetically about their choice of newspaper, because high-quality copies of his new album were already being heavily seeded on BitTorrent networks, having been uploaded directly from the CDs given away by the Mirror.
I suppose the giveaway of 20Ten might one day be seen as a canny strategy if it bolsters ticket sales for Prince’s very lucrative live shows. But it’s hard to imagine the strategy being replicated by bands whose tour revenues can't make up for the loss in future royalties that Prince has just cost himself by ruling out online sales.
Prince’s attitude seems an unfortunate echo from another decade – somewhat like his music. I mean, seriously: did you know he was 52 last month? He’ll soon be old enough to attend one of those “silver surfer” afternoon classes. Perhaps then he'll finally get the hang of the internet.