Why You Can’t Find Prince’s Music Online
Prince didn’t hate the internet, but he believed artists should be paid.
Image: Scott Penner/Flickr
Prince died today at his studio near Minneapolis. He was 57.
There's been an outpouring of grieving posts on Facebook and Twitter for the artist, who was arguably the single greatest musical talent of his generation, having recorded every instrument on his early records himself while at home. But one thing has been noticeably absent from the public display of mourning: links to all of the music that Prince's fans adore and celebrate.
Here is the reason you can't post a video of "When Doves Cry" with your "RIP Prince" post on Facebook: Prince believed that artists should be paid, and the internet does not facilitate that. He likely believed it until the day he died. For the internet generation, that's as much a part of his legacy as anything else.
"Tell me a musician who's got rich off digital sales. Apple's doing pretty good though, right?"
Prince's campaign to protect his music against piracy hasn't always been pretty, but nobody's ever accused Prince of being too nice. His mantra has always been to maintain control, at any cost. "If you don't own your masters, your master owns you," he told Rolling Stone in 1996 during his break-up with his former label, Warner Bros.
"What I meant was that the internet was over for anyone who wants to get paid, and I was right about that," Prince told The Guardian. "Tell me a musician who's got rich off digital sales. Apple's doing pretty good though, right?"
It's not that Prince hates the internet, per se. He's run a slew of websites over the years, and as recently as 2013 started a new site just to release his single, "Screwdriver." He even started a subscription-based site for new music called the NPG Music Club that ran between 2001 and 2006. Hell, he won a Webby for it.
No, what he hated, quite clearly, is the idea of being exploited by a "master."
Prince's efforts to battle what some see as an inevitable switch to streaming as the main mode of digital music consumption have, at times, been flat-out petty. The now-infamous "dancing baby" copyright case, also known as Lenz v. Universal Music Corp, came about because Prince's label sued the family that uploaded the video of a baby dancing to his song "Let's Go Crazy" to YouTube.
In 2007, when Universal filed the lawsuit against the Lenz family, Prince stated that he intended to "reclaim his art on the internet" and planned to sue The Pirate Bay, eBay, and others. He also hired Web Sherriff, a company that specializes in wiping copyrighted content from the web, and went about doing just that—thousands of videos with Prince's music in them disappeared from the internet.
Prince's conviction that artists should be paid for their work and the ensuing battle to keep his music off the internet has been filled with wins and losses. In Lenz v. Universal Music Corp, Prince lost, and the 29-second video of a baby dancing to a barely-intelligible Prince song went back online. A loss, and a sour one at that.
But the dialog about whether streaming services actually benefit artists or simply shortchange them is still ongoing, with no shortage of smart, impassioned arguments on either side. In this fight, at the end of his life, Prince was a victor. At the very least, for himself, and on his own terms.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Prince died in his Minneapolis studio. Prince's studio is actually in nearby Chanhassen, Minnesota. This article has been changed to reflect this, and Motherboard, deeply regrets the error.