For a long time now, Prince has done things his own way. In his early years, he made music that made almost no sense against the commercial context of the day, managing to jam genres together in ways they’d never been combined. For a while in the ‘90s, he was releasing music so fast it drove his record label crazy. His hits were sometimes followed by spectacular misses. At one point, he re-emerged as an unpronounceable symbol. He’s been personally elusive and at times inscrutable. He’s also been one of the defining musicians of our time.
And now the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince has surprised us again: He’s pulling his music from Spotify and from Apple’s new service, along with, apparently, several other platforms at a time when most artists are lining up behind streaming. His songs still stream on Tidal, a subscription-only service helmed by Jay Z.
A message now shows up on Prince’s Spotify page: “Prince’s publisher has asked all streaming services to remove his catalog. We have cooperated with the request, and hope to bring his music back as soon as possible.”
The timing of this is indeed curious. We’re currently experiencing a lovefest for Apple’s new service. “The iTunes era is over,” raves the headline for a Slate story. “Apple Music is here, and you might never buy a song again.” The press and media, on the whole, have been positive, in some cases heavily positive, about the rollout. At the same time, despite some concerns among musicians and their advocates about the Apple plan, a new consensus has shaped up that says while we still need to get the details straight, steaming music is the future.
Cross this with technology fetishism so strong it has nearly seeped into our collective bloodstream, it’s likely that Prince will be denounced as a Luddite – the curse shallow Silicon Valley dupes drag out when someone disagrees with the digital world conquest. People will say that Prince is out of touch, that he’s zigging where the rest of the music business is zagging, that he doesn’t understand the future. But as erratic as the guy is, this is a reminder that he’s also smart and independent minded.
“A lot of people say that Prince is old-fashioned or uncomfortable with technology, and that’s completely untrue,” says Robert Levine, author “Free Ride,” of one of the key books on the digital revolution’s threat to the culture business. He went on to tell Salon today:
"Remember -- we’re talking about an artist who first left his major-label deal before Napster even came out and who used the Internet to run his own label years ago. What Prince wants is a degree of control over his own work -- both in terms of how it’s presented and in terms of the amount he gets paid. If you think about how he works -- producing and arranging a lot of his own music -- this makes sense. When it comes to streaming services, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have that control. Most people who say he’s stupid or that he doesn’t get it are just uncomfortable with him having that control. I think he may be making the right choice here — perhaps he’ll get an exclusive deal that will bring in more money. But even if he’s not, it’s his choice to make."
So why don’t more musicians than superstars like Prince and Taylor Swift push back against the big tech companies? Many are justifiably afraid that they will be further marginalized if they speak up against their digital overlords. And the vast majority of them have contracts that do not allow them to control how their music is disseminated.
A real triumph for artists’ rights would allow all musicians some control of what happens to their work. And it would allow independent artists and indie labels some muscle as well. We are probably a long way from that. For now, let’s applaud the Purple One for reminding us again just how complicated and unresolved the plight of artists in the digital age remains.