If you’re a music fan, 2016 is turning out to be a really sad year. It’s not even halfway over and we’ve already lost, among others, Glenn Frey, Sir George Martin (the “Fifth Beatle”), Merle Haggard, Keith Emerson, Paul Kantner, David Bowie, and, most recently, Prince.
It’s the latter two who have attracted the most attention due to the outsized role they played in the development of music as a business. Each transcended boundaries, including those of musical genre, race, gender, and artistic categories. Bowie and Prince were both “avant-garde aliens, trend-setting musical polyglots who acted as if gender and race—indeed, identity in general—were fluid concepts,” writes Michael Barclay in Macleans.
At the same time, both were pioneers at using new technology, including the Internet, to make connections with fans and produce and market their artistic endeavors. In 1996, Bowie became the first major artist to distribute a new song—“Telling Lies”—as an online-only release, selling more than 300,000 downloads, writes Keith Stuart for The Guardian.
Bowie then launched his BowieNet Internet access service in 1998. “This was in effect a music-centric social network, several years before the emergence of sector leaders like Friendster and Myspace,” Stuart writes. “’If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the Internet,’ he said at the time,” adding that, to Bowie, the artistic expression wasn’t complete until the audience added its own interpretation. “The service presaged everything from ‘Second Life’ to Spotify—and provided Internet access on top of it,” writes Marc Hogan in Billboard.
Prince, for his part, created a subscription-based online club called NPGMusicClub and released exclusive tracks and special-access concert tickets to members in 2001, reports Mathew Ingraham in Fortune. Prince later won a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for being the first major artist to release an entire album exclusively on the Web, Crystal Ball. (Both artists shut down their services by 2006.)
Prince proved adept at seizing the opportunity to use new technology throughout his career. “A tremendously shrewd industry player, Prince came to emblematize 35 years of changes in the making and distribution of music,” writes Jason King for NPR. “Prince was at the forefront of all these changes. As did Bowie, Prince showed us that you could self-fashion—you could live a life not strictly determined by how others defined you, but more often by how you defined yourself.”
“[Prince] was one of the first artists to take his fan base to the then-nascent Internet, selling online-exclusive releases, like the 3CD set Crystal Ball, containing material from his vaults that he claimed Warner Brothers didn’t want him to put out,” Barclay writes. “All of that, of course, made him appear crazy, especially at the height of the CD boom. He came off as a rich rock star complaining he wasn’t getting enough money. Of course, it looks entirely prescient; now it’s routine for major artists to eschew major labels and go it alone.”
Prince also distributed albums in the U.K. with newspapers and with purchases of concert tickets. While they may have been “free” to purchasers, these deals not only earned him more money than standard royalties but ended up helping out the newspapers as well through increased sales, writes Jumana Farouky in Time.
That said, there were differences between Prince and Bowie as well. While Prince initially supported online distribution of music and video through services such as Napster, he eventually turned on it, using a variety of legal methods to scrub the Internet of any reference to his art that he didn’t control, including streaming music services and YouTube. These were business decisions, Ingraham writes, having to do with the royalty rates that musicians received from these services. He also forbade cell phones and cameras at his concerts, even by journalists, and claimed as recently as 2013 that he didn’t use one himself. (He did deign last fall to create an Instagram and a Twitter account, but has since deleted all the Tweets.)
As it turns out, the only streaming service where Prince music is largely available is Tidal, set up by musical artist Jay-Z to better meet the needs of musicians by providing higher royalties and giving them more control.
Prince also filed a variety of lawsuits against unauthorized use of his work, ranging from people uploading bootleg copies of his concerts to six-second Vine clips to a mom posting a video of toddlers dancing to one of his songs. That last case went all the way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, write Christopher Zara and Elizabeth Whitman for the International Business Times. “The court upheld a position that copyright holders such as Universal can’t simply fire off copyright complaints without first considering so-called fair use,” they write. “The clip in question was 29 seconds long. Prince’s stance against the minor use of his music put him at odds with First Amendment advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented the YouTube user and called the court’s decision an ‘important win’ for free speech.”
Consequently, when each artist died, fans mourned their passing differently. With Bowie—who told the New York Times in 2002 that music was going to be as ubiquitous as running water or electricity—they sent around their favorite songs and videos, and listened to his music on Spotify, while with Prince, they primarily shared stories.
But in both cases, mourners also bought a lot of music. Sales of Bowie’s most recent album, Blackstar, increased 1,055 percent once the news broke of his death, and radio airplay increased 1,134 per cent from Sunday to Monday, according to Thompson Reuters. Similarly, in both the U.K. and the U.S., Prince music took over both the album and single charts, including, at one point, the top 11 songs on iTunes (with “Purple Rain” #1).
Losing a creative genius always dims the world’s light a little. That said, a new generation is growing up and finding new ways to innovate, not just in music and other performing arts, but in the production and distribution of those arts. It seems fitting that Beyonce’s Lemonade—a piece that also transcended genre by an artist who has excelled in songwriting, performing, dancing, and fashion—was released the same weekend as Prince’s death.
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