Bear with me. This has been building up for quite some time now.
As you all know, on Jan. 30, Pitchfork announced that Prince’s entire backlog would become available on Apple Music, Amazon Music and iHeartRadio’s subscription services.
While many people count this is a moment of celebration, quite frankly it seems more like an outright act of vandalism. Okay, I get it. He’s gone. He no longer has any agency in this world. He’s left the mortal coil, no longer having any form of terrestrial control over his music or what people do with it. But … that’s sort of the point.
This is a man who was vehemently against his work being put on these very websites and those of their ilk, going so far as removing his entire musical catalog from YouTube and all other online music platforms except for Tidal. The seeming genesis of his attitude no doubt stemmed from the well-documented disputes and disagreements with his record company, Warner Bros./Time Warner. Said issues resulted in him temporarily breaking ties with the label and, most notably, changing his name to the enigmatic symbol. The drastic transformation came much to the confusion and consternation of most media outlets who couldn’t reconcile this unorthodox insignia. As a result most stuck to calling him “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.” (I won’t bore you with the details, especially since the man so eloquently laid out the story himself in an interview with Tavis Smiley on “BET Tonight” back in 1998.)
Granted, in recent years he’d found a middle ground, and his stance proved to be more of an active wariness about accessibility (and by extension the sudden rise in a lack of accountability) than an outward hatred of the influence of the Internet on how artists’ music is distributed.
Now his soulless body lay in repose, providing its purple majestic elixir to the ground that he came from, producing flowers and rainbows as his earthly matter seeps back into the ether of the universe. After waiting what they believed a suitable time for his body to cool in the ground — not even a full year — those in charge of his estate have decided this is the perfect time to disregard his wishes, jimmy open the musical genius’s vault of masterpieces ripe for exploitation and reap the pecuniary benefits of an artist’s legacy. They’ve even gone so far as to sue Tidal for releasing his music on their site, citing copyright infringement. (As of the writing of this opinion piece, the results of this suit and Roc Nation’s countersuit have yet to be realized.)
Don’t get me wrong. I, like any lover of music, have been salivating over the possibilities of this wealth of untapped musical potential and excellence. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is Prince we’re talking about here. These aren’t just some jingles here and there penned and hidden away because there didn’t seem to be any monetary benefit to their release. Prince Rogers Nelson was a master of craft, a paragon of musical depth, ingenuity and nuance who sometimes made music for the hell of it. He breathed into the world, and the deep musk of his morning aspiration would cause a ripple in the matter around him and beget something so pure and uncontaminated by human interference that we would all seem unworthy in its presence. But that’s what he did: create music so people could become brand-new with its existence.
Even on his worst days — all artists, no matter how ethereal, have them — his worst work, work that he’d be ashamed of if anyone even heard the first count of four, could Kaio-ken anything purporting to share the same medium of expression.
So, yeah, I’ll admit that the prospect of hearing some of this work had me as anxious and eager as anybody else.
But I also have a keen awareness that an artist’s work is sacred. Especially coming from a man who was ardent in his beliefs of freedom, both creatively and spiritually, and especially following the dissolution of his relationship with Warner Bros./Time Warner, this seems like a complete contradiction of Prince’s core values as a man and an artist.
Barring even the fact that this is PRINCE, honoring another person’s wishes regarding his/her art, work that they put their soul into — the good, bad and ugly, the worst and best — should be honored. It’s that constant question we as humans perpetually have to confront, the most glaring part of our hubris that we refuse to acknowledge but never leaves us alone: even if we can, should we?
Although he’s no longer here to express his displeasure with the mass commodification of art, the commercialism of music, the greed and entitlement of the “fan” or even the casual listener who has not had a single hand in that artist’s creations, what right do we have to touch what was formerly kept hidden? No matter the reasons, Prince had a keen distrust of the sudden ease of access to music. Once again, control was taken out of the artist’s grasp. As soon as it’s put on the Internet, there’s no guarantee what will happen to it, how it’ll be used, who’ll see it and what their intentions are. The artist no longer has autonomy over their craft — if not from the label that represents them, from the infinitely expanding depths of the web.
I’m of the mind that no matter their mortal status, if an artist wanted his music posted everywhere, logic follows he would have done so. Clearly money was never a motivating factor when Prince created his music. Going through countless eras, phases and musical evolution, it would’ve been easy for him to parse out some tunes from the veritable pantheon of music at his disposal and sit back as royalties from their commercial use poured into his lap. But given that the thousands of ideas, recordings and songs in varying states of completion he’d collected over the span of nearly 40 years were all stored away, it follows he simply didn’t want those tracks released. As a way to curb some of the rampant bootlegging of his earlier work, he even released what he called “The Crystal Ball Project” in 1998 to give his most ardent admirers a chance to hear these cuts as they were intended, thus giving us a peek into his musical catacombs. In essence, if he’d wanted his work released, he would’ve released it. If he wanted his music streamed on every major streaming platform, if he’d wanted his videos accessible to YouTube and Daily Motion, he wouldn’t have had them removed in the first place.
As I said, I know he’s no longer among us. I know he, in a very real sense, has no say or control whatsoever over his work anymore. I also know that most people are elated and feel mostly entitled to consume this man’s artistry in any way they can. But I’m of the mind that even in death, a person’s creativity, his soul and life’s work, is sacred. I personally won’t be partaking in any of the streaming of his work. If I’m determined to have it, I’ll seek it out and pay for it like we did before we had this lifelong backstage pass to whatever we want at any time we want it.
I have great appreciation for platforms that allow artists to get their music out there to an entire world of music lovers — especially when those artists are fairly compensated for it. But in the end, I want to respect an artist’s wishes, and the artist formerly and forever known as Prince made his wishes clear. Now that he’s gone, it seems any respect, no matter the level, people have (or had) for those wishes evaporated the second they were given permission to sift through and consume it to their heart’s content.
And ultimately, I’m just saddened by it.