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Poor Lonely Computer: Prince's Misunderstood Relationship With The Internet

Prince on stage in France in 2011.
Bertrand Guay
AFP/Getty Images
Prince on stage in France in 2011.

Some people in the line were not sure what to do with their phones. A man in his mid-50s, who'd traveled all the way from Kansas with his sister, thought it would be fine to keep his hidden away in his pocket. He had no intention of using it, he said. But he's been diagnosed with cancer and, understandably, was a little anxious about being uncontactable for several hours, so far away from home in the depths of Minnesota.

"You use it, you lose it!" bellowed Paisley Park staff as we waited at a local bus station to receive our wristbands and be transported in coaches to the venue. Holders of VIP tickets ($250) were allowed to park at Paisley. But however much you'd paid for a ticket, one rule was being enforced above all others: no cellphones, no cameras. There were quite a few locals in the friendly, mostly middle-aged crowd, people who'd been to Paisley many times. They were unequivocal. "Don't bother bringing a phone," said Sean, who was dressed in a purple suit. "They'll take it off you." I locked mine in the rental car, away from temptation. Most others did the same, including the gentleman from Kansas. Prince, armed with just a microphone and a piano, was playing a couple of intimate midweek shows in one night, in his own studio complex just outside Minneapolis.

"From all over the world, the people came," brags Prince's last great B-side, before the Internet changed the way we think of singles. The song is called "Rock 'n' Roll is Alive (And It Lives In Minneapolis)," and on a cold night in January, both the opening lyric and the title of this 1995 track still seemed to hold true. Given Prince's notoriously antagonistic relationship with the Internet, it is not a surprise that this song is unavailable to legally stream or download anywhere.

There are probably two main reasons for the cellphone ban at Paisley Park. First is an attempt to preserve the purity of the live music experience, to encourage people to watch and absorb the show rather than their screens. Apart from a woman who used her phone flashlight to look for something she'd dropped, earning a stern word from an alert member of staff, everyone seemed to respect the rules. At one point, while he scrolled through his iPad, deciding what to play next, Prince playfully asked why everyone was looking at him. Later, I could only find a single, blurry image from the show on social media.

The other reason is Prince's fierce commitment to protection of copyright. He does not take kindly to unauthorized recordings and images. There is surprisingly little to be found in places like YouTube. What does exist is usually unauthorized and only survives for as long as it takes to issue a takedown notice. Which Prince, or whoever he's paying to handle this task, does with great regularity. There is plenty of Prince material on non-U.S. video sites, which are harder to deal with under American law.

"Copyright law has not caught up with the way the Internet works," explains Professor Chris Bavitz of Harvard Law School. "The Internet itself is premised on making copies. Every time you load a web page you are making a copy. But technically, according to the U.S. Copyright Act, you are violating the rights of whoever owns the content on that page."

Bavitz has been immersed in the music industry for many years. Between 2003 and 2008 he was in-house counsel at EMI, at the time one of the four major record labels. Among other things, he now teaches a Music and Digital Media class at Harvard.

Today, relatively few people buy physical copies of music. After its slow initial response to the rise of illegal file-sharing in the 2000s, the industry now supplies music in several ways using the Internet. You can pay to download individual tracks and albums using something like iTunes; you can stream music of your choice by subscribing to a service like Spotify; you can select a genre or artist on Pandora and let the service's algorithm choose similar songs for you. Artists also have their own channels on audio and video platforms like Soundcloud and YouTube, to which fans can subscribe for free. But Prince has mostly stood apart from these developments.

"The Internet's completely over," he said in 2010. "I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else." Since then, Prince has removed most of his music from the streaming service Spotify, instead aligning with the newer, smaller, Jay-Z-backed Tidal. There is some music available on iTunes, but the latest releases appear several weeks earlier on Tidal. There are many Prince songs and albums that are completely unavailable on any of the major digital platforms.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an important civil liberty organization that specifically focuses on digital technology, created The Raspberry Beret Lifetime Aggrievement Award for Prince, in 2013, because of his "extraordinary abuses of the takedown process in the name of silencing speech." It sees Prince's takedowns not merely as a copyright issue, in which an artist can claim to be protecting his work, but as outright censorship.

In 2007, Stephanie Lenz posted a 29-second video of her young children dancing in the kitchen. Faintly in the background, the Prince song "Let's Go Crazy" is playing. The correct response would probably have been to do nothing, but Universal Music, Prince's label at the time, decided to issue a takedown. The ensuing legal battle, in which the EFF represents Lenz, is still not quite over after nine long years of decisions and appeals. Though he's not the plaintiff, the EFF still blames Prince.

The association is understandable. That same year, Prince not only threatened legal action against eBay and YouTube but also against three websites that were run by his fans. He wanted them to remove anything linked to his likeness: photos, album art, even images of Prince-inspired tattoos. A letter from his lawyers asked them to provide "substantive details of the means by which you propose to compensate our clients [Paisley Park Entertainment Group, NPG Records and AEG] for damages." In response, the fansites formed a coalition, Prince Fans United, to contest the action. Prince then created a one-off website where he uploaded an unflattering song about them, the frankly awesome "PFunk." In the end, nobody got sued and pretty much everyone loved the track. "With everything that's going on, we continue to listen to his music," said Karen Avera from the Housequake fansite, at the time. "We'll continue to buy his music, because we appreciate his music." But it was an ugly episode, nonetheless.

Infamously, Prince managed to take down a YouTube clip of himself performing a cover of Radiohead's "Creep" at the Coachella music festival in 2008, despite the band's lead singer Thom Yorke making it very clear who the song actually belongs to. The law does not provide a great deal of clarity in these cases, unfortunately.

"My guess is that Prince at least claimed to be an owner or co-owner of the rights in this video, even if not the song, thus giving him the right to demand its removal," says Bavitz. "But, actually parsing out the basis for that claim is a bit messy." The video was uploaded yet again last year, this time apparently with Prince's approval. He's now using Twitter and Instagram again and posted a link to it.

Among his devoted fans, who have vast collections of Prince albums and have seen him live many times, there is a general acceptance of this stance. They don't worry too much about the lack of grainy clips on YouTube or the absence of music on Spotify.

Some I met at Paisley Park shook their heads in weary resignation as they muttered, "Yeah, he hates the Internet."

Amanda Palmer certainly does not hate the Internet. The singer/songwriter is famous for her personal interactions with fans, both on and offline. She has more than a million Twitter followers; she takes the time to answer many of their questions and generally engage in conversation; she allows all photography and filming at her live shows. This is pretty much the opposite of Prince's approach. Palmer has built such a rapport with fans that she managed to raise $1.2 million on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, to support a tour and the recording of a 2012 album. This was not without some controversy, with a few musicians upset about her calls for volunteers to play on some songs alongside her main band.

Palmer grew up idolizing Prince. But the music industry has changed since the days when she had posters of him on her bedroom wall. She makes an analogy with the silent movie stars who, brilliant as they may have been, could not cope with the inevitability of a technological revolution that would pass them by. Prince was successful in an era of lucrative music sales — and, to be fair, patient support from a major record label — that has now largely gone. "What Prince wants is just not possible anymore," she says. "But it is important that people don't hold it against him. He grew up and is completely fluent in a language that is dying. Almost all of my early heroes are struggling in the same way."

But it is not clear that technology is the main issue here. Even before the Internet came along, Prince was trying to control the distribution of his music. At the Paisley Park concert, many people were exchanging stories of how and where they got hold of old bootleg Prince recordings. This is how an artist like Prince truly endures, how dedicated fandom develops. For these people, Purple Rain is for the masses.

For an obsessive teenage music fan, an artist's official back catalog is rarely sufficient. In London in the early 1990s, a few of us would pick up the Northern Line from Kings Cross and make the short journey to Camden Town. There, in the famous, sprawling market surrounding by indie-music pubs full of underage drinkers, we'd head for the music stalls to look for unofficial tracks, concert recordings, demos, whatever we could get our hands on. I still have a poor-quality vinyl pressing of the once-legendary Black Album.

Very early on a sunny morning in 1994, a small group of us once again headed to Camden. Not, this time, to buy more tapes in the market, but because Prince was actually opening his own store there. He wasn't even called Prince that day, because he had changed his name to a symbol and was in the middle of a fight to extract himself from his contract at Warner Brothers. A few dozen people were waiting patiently. Presumably they'd also been mocked at school. My mum had made sandwiches.

At its peak, the crowd was no bigger than a couple of hundred. Bear in mind this was one of the most famous people in the world just showing up in a popular, touristy part of London. But we had no Internet access, no cellphones, no digital cameras. We only knew about it because one of us subscribed to a photocopied, crudely stapled fanzine. Today, social media would force the police to shut the whole thing down. Eventually, Prince himself appeared on the balcony, wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit. He cut a ribbon, waved for a few seconds, the crowd went nuts and he was gone. I bought posters, some CDs and regrettably, a large earring in the shape of the Prince symbol.

Sadly, there are very few records of that day — a Google search only reveals a few poor quality photos and a very early online forum discussion with about four participants. The store closed down two years later, but it was an early attempt by Prince to bypass established music industry distribution channels.

My old friend Sidh Solanki was with us that morning. An extremely talented musician even as a teenager, he has since forged a successful career as a producer and is now based in Los Angeles. Solanki, despite his deep roots in the industry, does not listen to music on Spotify or any other streaming service, partly because he feels it doesn't compensate music creators properly. "These people have been pumping music out to their subscribers for years without paying people for their copyrights," he says. "Prince has a lot to be wary of when he puts music out there."

Nobody thought the music royalties system was completely fair in the old days, but Solanki suggests that it was at least straightforward. The record label would manage the process and he got a certain amount every time someone bought a record or it got played on the radio. But now, he thinks they have changed listeners' expectations. "Music is now freely available everywhere so it has no value to the consumer," he says.

A recent report from the Berklee School of Music in Boston is highly critical of the streaming services and their investors, who happen to include major record labels. Essentially, the report accuses the music industry of a deliberate lack of transparency. The technology exists to track downloads and streams to a very fine degree, something that would enable artists to see what they are owed and help create a common standard. It might not make everyone rich but it would at least be fair. But the industry chooses not to use technology that is easily available, so we now have, the report says, "a tremendously mismatched ecosystem in which we have surface-level, profit-generating elements without the proper digital infrastructure to support them."

"The resulting opaque industry," it concludes starkly, "is one in which many artists can reach a wide number of fans, but only a few can truly make a living from their craft, and even fewer can understand the problems they are facing."

Prince probably does not need to earn a living any more. He can charge $250 a ticket for a concert in his house. But Solanki still approves of his attempts to control distribution and experiment with new methods of getting his music and brand out there, which includes that London store more than twenty years ago. "Prince is just doing what he thinks is best," he says. "We have maybe a few years before we figure out the norms for where we get our music from and how we all get paid properly. There isn't a solution yet. Because if he hasn't found it, no-one's found it."

Towards the end of Prince's most commercially successfully period, Galaxie 500, a critically-acclaimed indie rock band, formed at Harvard in the late eighties. Damon Krukowski, the band's soft-spoken drummer, says the three musicians who had made up the group took a major hit with the rise of digital music services. They used to make a clear profit on physical records sold and a successful album could generate enough income to live on for a while, even though they accepted early on that they were never going to be selling millions. Streaming not only killed off the idea of a back catalog as a chronology of music, but dramatically reduced their income.

Prince, says Krukowski, has thought harder about the industry than other musicians. He is entrepreneurial and ambitious. "Prince was always destined to be a pop star and had his eye on being huge," he says. "But he would show up and watch these obscure bands that only other musicians liked, in tiny venues in Minneapolis. He always wanted to know everything that was going on."

Krukowski thinks artists should abandon the idea of expecting fans to pay to stream their music and just offer that particular service for free. They could still sell downloads on iTunes and elsewhere. In his view, it would be fairer and more practical for digital streams to "flow freely — from everyone, fans included — instead of only from companies that have cut deals with the copyright holders." That way, at least everyone is on a level playing field. "I believe if we relinquish control and claim over the stream," he says. "We clarify what it is we actually do own and can profit from as musicians and songwriters."

For emerging artists today, there is an acceptance that streaming services in their current form, however unfair their business practices might seem when it comes to royalties, cannot be ignored. The Internet in general offers an enormous opportunity to reach audiences — and generate revenue from elsewhere — at a scale that was once impossible without the backing of a record label. Prince was 18 when Warner Brothers gave him a multi-album deal, even allowing the precocious teenager to produce his own albums. It was not until his fifth effort, 1999, that he could be considered a major star. His sixth, incidentally, was Purple Rain. This level of patience and support was unusual at the time but it would not happen at all today.

Dani Leigh was also just 18 when Prince invited her to direct the video for his "Breakfast Can Wait" single in 2013. Two years later, as one half of the duo Curly Fryz, the Florida native performed on the standout track of a recent Prince album, a storming piece of braggadocio funk called "Like A Mack." As a new solo artist, she says she is lucky to have Prince in her corner. But unlike her mentor, she is not in a position to shun the Internet. Her first single is available on every platform. "That's where everyone gets their music nowadays," she says. "It's easier for Prince to do what he does, because he's Prince. A lot of people will go out of their way to find his music."

He still refuses to back down. "I was right about [the Internet]," Prince said in November 2015. Leigh worries about his legacy among a new generation of music fans, because of his absence from Spotify and YouTube. "I know a lot of younger kids who don't know Prince and don't realize who he is," she says.

Although nobody else of his status behaves this way today, a decade ago, just before he started threatening to sue everyone in sight, Prince was considered a genuine Internet hero: "It is with great pleasure and admiration that we present The Webby Lifetime Achievement award to Prince, who has forever altered the landscape of online musical distribution as the first major artist to release an entire album — 1997's Crystal Ball — exclusively on the web. Prince's leadership online has transformed the entertainment industry and reshaped the relationship between artist and fan."

From the very beginning, Prince had always been interested in computers and how an artist might use them, says Berklee professor and Prince fan Ben Houge. Songs like "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)" (1982) and "Computer Blue" (1984) were early examples right there in his music; in the Internet era there are tracks like "Emale" and "My Computer" (both 1996). The latter's lyrics are even prescient of social media: "I scanned my computer, looking for a site. Somebody to talk to, funny and bright."

Later, he used the available technology to create "experiences," not merely albums, that were more than just music, combining sound, visuals and a sense of interactivity. The liner notes for 1997's Crystal Ball, specifically cited by the Webby Awards, were presented as a web page, which was unique at the time. Professor Houge argues that Prince is sensitive to everything that is part of a musical experience. "Of course it's incredibly convenient to have music instantly accessible on a streaming service, but so much information is lost," he says. "Not only textual information like credits, lyrics, bios and essays but also visual information like photos, font, layout and graphic design, so many things that convey an important extra-musical dimension to an artist's vision."

In 2001, Prince launched his most ambitious Internet project of all, the NPG Music Club, a subscription service that was initially priced at $100 a year. It was an attempt to distribute exclusive new music directly to fans and give members first preference and VIP access to concerts. It also featured a weekly, fan-hosted radio show. It didn't always work very well. Eventually, the price was lowered to just $25 for a lifetime membership, so I too signed up. I never got a VIP pass to a concert.

The site closed down in 2006, the same year Prince won the lifetime Webby. There has never been a prince.com, a consistent, high-quality Internet home. Someone has registered the domain but there is no website. Prince has instead had a series of short-lived sites, dating all the way back to thedawn.com in 1996. Most of them were designed to sell a specific album or event and none lasted very long. He periodically dips in and out of social media.

This is not the only musical genius to have tried, with limited success, to use the Internet and realize its potential for music. "Peace, David Bowie," said Prince, quietly and a little unexpectedly, as he was sitting at his piano at Paisley Park. "I only met him once. He was nice to me. Seems like he was nice to everyone." It was a gentle, humble moment.

In 1994, Bowie was the first major artist to release a song solely on the Internet, was also into interactive experiences, and by 1998, had gone a lot further than Prince by launching his own service provider, Bowienet, which offered Internet access, a Bowienet email address and an official, high-quality Bowie website that was full of music and visual material. By 2002, Bowie had accepted that the Internet would change the way musicians functioned. "I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing," he told The New York Times. "You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left."

Bowie was wrong about the demise of copyright but right about the increased value of live performances. In the 2000s, Prince did not sell many records but was one of the highest-grossing live acts in the world. In 1996, following his debilitating battle with Warners — the era of the unpronounceable symbol for a name and "slave" written on his face — the comedian Chris Rock had also told Prince to just get on the stage. "You talk about owning your music," said Rock. "The thing you have that is worth more than anything else is your reputation as a live performer, which will feed you when all else fails."

Prince's entire history with the Internet can be understood in terms of a great artist experimenting with available technology to retain control of his music and artistic vision, trying to maintain a separation between live performance and recordings, and achieving a business model that rewards artists for their work and talent. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, an era of largely open platforms — before iTunes, Spotify, social media — what he wanted to achieve might have seemed possible. But neither the NPG Music Club nor Bowienet were suited to the way the Internet was changing and, looking back, it is perhaps no surprise they were both finished by 2006. Ultimately, Houge thinks Prince has tried really hard: "I think his issues with the Internet, relatively recent in his long-term relationship with the medium, are more a result of disappointment of the ways in which its potential has not been realized than in a lack of vision."

It was approaching 2:00 a.m. when the lights went up and we were gently ushered to the heated coaches that would return us to our cars a couple of miles away. It was cold outside and there was light snow. "There aren't any rules in Paisley Park," Prince had sung, but many would beg to differ.

For nearly four hours, the performances were perfect, with just one or two songs repeated across the two concerts. Prince was relaxed and funny, and played the obscure songs this crowd craved, as well as some of the bigger hits. There are nearly 40 albums to choose from. For many fans, it is not an overstatement to describe this as a pilgrimage, a visit to the birthplace of the soundtrack to their lives. Prince's staff filmed the performance but it is likely that the footage will end up in his semi-mythical vault, where it is thought he stores thousands of recordings that very few people have heard.

On the Internet, meanwhile, there is that solitary unauthorized photo on Instagram and nothing at all of this concert on YouTube. If you want to see the show, to have the memories, you have to buy a ticket. The Internet can do great things for music but it still cannot replicate an experience like this.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hasit Shah
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