Prince has released his latest album, ‘HITNRUN Phase One’, and early reviews suggest it’s very good indeed. “It’s been a long time since a Prince album has been so pleasurable and enjoyable to hear,” wrote the Guardian’s reviewer yesterday.
“Skillful and scattershot,” suggested the New York Times’. Yet there remains a debate about just how many fans will hear the album, since as promised, it has been released exclusively on streaming service Tidal.
“Tidal have honoured us with a non-restrictive arrangement that once again allows us to continue making art in the fashion we’ve grown accustomed to and we’re extremely grateful for their generous support,” said Prince last month.
“Both Prince and Tidal share the belief that all creatives should have the opportunity to speak directly to those that love and support them,” added Tidal co-owner Jay-Z at the time. Yet in this case, it’s only a subset of the fans who love and support Prince: the ones paying for Tidal.
This is a genuine exclusive – one service only – rather than the blanket ‘paid subscription services only’ approach taken by Taylor Swift with her back catalogue.
And while Prince has always gone his own way digitally, the risk here is that those of his fans who do value music – by buying it physically or digitally, or by paying for another streaming service – are the ones being penalised. The danger: rather than a stand in support of music’s value, it’s more a case of new album as marketing collateral for one specific service.
Prince made the music, so it’s his right to decide how to distribute it, as well as to strike whatever business agreements he sees fit around it. In the downloads era, exclusives were less problematic for fans: if an album was not available from your store of choice, you could buy from another.
In the subscription streaming world, people’s attachment to their playlists and networks of friends, artists and tastemakers that they’re following on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play or a rival may trump their desire to hear the new Prince album.
And so the new Prince album may not be heard by people who already love and value his music, but also by people who don’t know or love it yet, but might do.
If this turns out to be a time-limited Tidal exclusive and ‘HITNRUN Phase One’ appears elsewhere in the weeks ahead, these concerns may be short-lived. But as things stand, a non-time-limited streaming exclusive risks looking less like a punch thrown in support of artists’ rights, and more like a jab in the eye for fans.