Ladies and gentlemen.
It is with a great deal of sadness that Sputnikmusic.com will cease to exist as of this month. Online media is well and truly dead, folks, and Sputnikmusic has to move with the times. However, we are excited to announce a brand new venture in the exciting world of print journalism: from July 31, Sputnikmusic will be available exclusively as a supplement with the Saturday edition of the Daily Mirror.
Well, not really.
But were confirmation ever needed that silly season had well and truly begun, it crashed through the ceiling on Monday with vuvuzelas blazing when Prince declared the internet (yes, the whole thing) to be “over” in an interview with the aforementioned British redtop. He said: “The internet’s completely over. I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it.”
He went on: “They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.” From the man who brought us such classics as ‘1999,’ ‘I Would Die 4 U,’ 3121 and ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ this is indeed a withering assessment of numbers. Perhaps more crucially, it represents the end of an era, not for online music, but for Prince’s association with a platform that he very much helped to mold in its infant state. Back in 1998, Prince became the first high-profile artist to sell an album entirely over the internet when he released Crystal Ball.
Fast forward 12 years, and the Mirror has signed an exclusive deal with (i.e. given a huge amount of money to) the diminutive Minneapolitan to distribute his new album, 20Ten, free in the UK and Ireland with this Saturday’s edition of the paper. Similar deals have been signed with Rolling Stone in Germany and De Gentenaar in Belgium, although it is expected to be sold in the traditional way in North America. Prince signed a similar deal with The Mail on Sunday for 2007’s Planet Earth album, a decision that led critics, ironically, to level at him much the same charges with which he faults iTunes and the like – that he was devaluing music by divorcing it from its traditional form.
Predictably, both the Daily Mirror and Rolling Stone have lavished praise on the album well in advance. Mirror journo Tony Parsons said the album was “as good as [Prince's] all-time classics like Purple Rain and 1999” and “his best record since Sign o’ the Times 23 years ago.” Rolling Stone wasn’t quite so bold, admitting that it was only his best work since 1992’s (Love Symbol Album). The fact there is nothing remotely surprising about this sort of chicanery says an awful lot about the dire state of modern print journalism, and to any normal-sized ego would be the first indication that he had probably backed a loser.
The real story here isn’t that the Mirror and Rolling Stone are loathe to bite the hand that feeds – anybody who’s followed modern journalism for more than a minute will have figured it out for himself. The Mirror’s bizarre decision to commission a review from Lenny Henry should be enough to sway any lingering naysayers. The real story is that Prince’s fight against all things webbed has escalated from a mere skirmish to an all-out battle.
The first division lines were relatively innocuous. In 2007, he deleted his innovative NPG Music Club website (the club was offering all-in subscriptions to fans long before the majors copped on to the practice) and began a long and expensive battle to have all traces of his music removed from Youtube. He was embarrassed when Pennsylvania mother Stephanie Lenz won her lawsuit against Universal Music when it had a 29-second clip of her son dancing to ‘Let’s Get Crazy’ removed from Youtube – the clip, which had been viewed by a mere 28 people, was correctly deemed ‘fair use.’
It could never really become more surreal from that point, although Prince did his best in 2008 when he ordered fan-filmed footage of himself performing Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ at Coachella to be taken off Youtube. The shock was such that the Oxford band’s frontman Thom Yorke was almost drawn to unparliamentary language as he demanded his song be unblocked – and it was. It is fitting that the defining battle of Prince’s war on the internet would be against an artist who has since taken over the mantle of (one of) online music’s leading innovators and puts paid to Prince’s conceit that it’s not a viable money-making medium.
There are plenty more failed examples of Prince trying to prevent the internet from happening, but these latest revelations are notable because Prince doesn’t do interviews, and the fact he even agreed to do one for the Mirror is indication enough of how much more of himself he’s had to surrender compared to Planet Earth three years ago. This is the first time in a long while he’s explicitly stated his views (he was hilariously paraphrased in a court case in Ireland earlier this year, dealing with a panicked promoter by instructing his manager to “tell that cat to chill”) instead of hiding behind lawyers and Web Sheriff, and it’s shocking just how out of touch he is.
Prince’s well-known eccentricities are as old as he is (52), but it’s hard to believe that even a sheltered rock (pop, funk, rap and whatever else) star could so quickly do an about-turn on the internet when he was so recently one of its most successful exponents. It’s entirely possible that he’s just popped a vein and genuinely doesn’t realise how wrong he is. It’s also possible that he was asked to give a boost to an ailing print industry by declaring it rejuvenated and he just got far too carried away.
However, it’s equally likely that the answer actually lies in his success as an early adopter of the internet. Prince has always been celebrated as an innovator, both as a musician and as a businessman. He and his advisers found ways to make good money from internet commerce when most commentators naively believed that digital could never compete with physical CDs. His choice of words is telling: the internet is “over” – it was useful and now it is time for the next thing. The next thing is apparently British newspapers.
In making his deals with the Mail on Sunday, Target (2009’s Lotusflow3r) and the Mirror, Prince has found a way for artists to reconstruct aspects of the old music business: the huge advances, expensive promotional campaigns and minimal risk to the artist. However, no more than the pro-piracy crowd, he hasn’t really grasped the broader economics, or he doesn’t care. The Daily Mirror can afford to pay huge money for Prince’s album because it’s a one-off event – its scarcity makes it valuable. However, the vast majority of CDs given out with newspapers and magazines are loss-making, which is why this once-common promotional tool has all but disappeared in the UK.
It’s very likely that Prince will continue to make money with exclusive deals like 20Ten – and it’s quite possible other major artists will continue to follow him into the fold, although the amount of money changing hands will undoubtedly continue to dwindle. Regular artists – both established and start-up, major label and indie – in lieu of the internet spontaneously imploding, will continue to straddle the line between profitability and diminishing returns online.