The worst-kept digital music secret of 2017 is that Prince’s back catalogue will be returning to streaming services this Sunday, to tie in with this year’s Grammy awards.
As we’ve been preparing for the announcement, we’ve been thinking back to the many times Music Ally has written about Prince in our 14-year history: from copyright disputes and digital scepticism to social media playfulness and a determination to stand up for the value of music.
After a trawl through our archives, we’ve come up with some highlights from our daily news bulletins through the years – with the original headlines – and added some commentary in hindsight from 2017. Enjoy this trip through Prince’s digital-music life.
28 June 2007: O2 offers Prince single for free
We wrote: “In the run-up to Prince’s series of gigs at The O2 Arena in London this summer, O2 is offering his new single `Guitar’ to customers as a free download for the next week. The file can be played on PCs or mobile phones, and is available from O2’s Blueroom website. In an interesting comment on the way music is evolving, O2 may be giving the full-track away, but it’s still charging £1.50 for the official `Guitar’ ringtone.”
In hindsight: Kids, ask your parents about files that played on PCs or mobile phones… But music as a loyalty tactic for telcos has been an enduring theme for the music industry, right through to bundling streaming subscriptions into tariffs today.
2 July 2007: Now Prince is giving away his new album
We wrote: “Prince plans to give his new album `Planet Earth’ away free with a future issue of the Mail On Sunday newspaper. Entertainment Retailers Association co-chairman Paul Quirk has already threatened that the deal could make Prince ‘The Artist Formerly Available in Record Stores’, while HMV boss Simon Fox has described the move as ‘absolutely nuts’. Prince, meanwhile, is presumably thinking about the Mail On Sunday”s 2.27 million readers.”
In hindsight: The intervening years haven’t been kind to the economics of record stores or newspapers, while ‘Planet Earth’ remains an obscure entry in Prince’s back catalogue. Just like Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’, more column inches were devoted to the distribution model for Prince’s album than to its music – unfairly in Radiohead’s case, but probably about right for ‘Planet Earth’.
14 September 2007: Prince threatens to sue YouTube, eBay and The Pirate Bay
We wrote: “So much for Prince’s reputation as the most web-friendly music megastar. Now he’s planning to sue YouTube, eBay and The Pirate Bay in an effort to ‘reclaim the internet’ (which at least is an advance on Elton John’s desire to switch it off). Prince has taken on anti-piracy firm Web Sheriff to file the lawsuits, which aim to take unsanctioned Prince videos off YouTube, memorabilia auctions off eBay, and everything else off The Pirate Bay.”
In hindsight: You thought the ‘value gap’ rows began in 2016? Prince was attacking YouTube nine years before. Note the timing of this story: YouTube had only just begun trials of its nascent Content ID copyright protection system. We do wonder, reading this back, whether Web Sheriff’s role was filing DMCA takedowns rather than full lawsuits.
2 June 2008: Radiohead think Prince is a Creep for YouTube blocking
We wrote: “Poor old Prince: he just can’t win when it comes to online music. Having covered Radiohead’s `Creep’ at the Coachella festival, it was no surprise to find videos of the performance quickly up on YouTube. Sticking to his usual policy, Prince’s management ordered them to be taken down, but have since been slammed by Radiohead. ‘Really? He’s blocked it? Well, tell him to unblock it. It’s our song!’ said Thom Yorke in an interview.”
In hindsight: When performance and publishing rights collide… There’s a happy coda to this story though: in December 2015, Prince tweeted a link to a re-uploaded video of the performance, seemingly indicating his approval.
17 March 2009: Prince launches Lotusflow3r subscription service
We wrote: “Prince has launched his own digital subscription service for fans called Lotusflow3r. It costs a whopping $77 a year, with subscribers getting music, exclusive videos, lyrics, artwork and photos. Billboard suggests Prince may also webcast live performances from his home and let fans request specific songs. The service is due to launch on 24 March, and later in the month will begin selling Prince’s new album digitally.”
In hindsight: Prince (like David Bowie) was impressively early to the idea of creating (and charging for) his own fan community. But by March 2010, he was fielding criticism from fans unhappy about his promises. “A spinning orb of videos, three albums (which were available at Target for less than $12), four ‘new’ streaming tracks and if fans were lucky, they actually received the t-shirt you promised,” wrote music blogger Steven Anthony, furious about being charged for a second year despite having cancelled his subscription.
14 April 2009: Prince launches $2,100 branded iPod
We wrote: “Prince is certainly keen to get money out of his diehard fans before they lose interest. Fresh from launching his own subscription service, the star has now started selling the Prince Opus iPod touch for – wait for it – $2,100! It comes with a book of photographs, a live album from his O2 gigs, and 40 minutes of exclusive video footage. Oh, and it’s purple, obviously. Only 950 are available.”
In hindsight: “Last remaining copies strictly sold on a first come, first served basis,” explained the Opus website after Prince’s death in April 2016, seven years on. Not a sellout, then.
6 July 2010: Prince – ‘The internet’s completely over’
We wrote (well, he said): “”The internet’s completely over. I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it. The internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good…”
In hindsight: Even purple iPod touch gadgets? But Prince’s determination to work with partners who valued his music as much as he did survived right through to his deal with Tidal five years later.
24 June 2011: Prince still (purple) raining on digital music’s parade
We wrote: “Well, that’s an understatement. ‘I personally can’t stand digital music. You’re getting sound in bits. It affects a different place in your brain. When you play it back, you can’t feel anything. We’re analogue people, not digital,’ he tells the Guardian in a rare interview, claiming also that he won’t record a new album due to piracy. ‘The industry changed. We made money [online] before piracy was real crazy. Nobody’s making money now except phone companies, Apple and Google.’
In hindsight: Prince wasn’t the first or the last music figure to point the finger at tech giants for grabbing the value of music. But his criticism of digital music perhaps points to the pitch Tidal – with its hi-res tier – used to win him over in 2015.
3 April 2013: Prince’s NPG Records files takedown notices against Vine
We wrote: “Prince’s NPG Records has filed a DMCA takedown notice with Vine to remove eight video clips… All eight clips have since been removed from Vine, which is a shame, because we’d be fascinated to know if they were live clips (e.g. shot at his recent SXSW gig) or regular user-generated videos with Prince’s music playing in the background.”
In hindsight: Yes, they were live clips from SXSW, and the copyright implications of demanding that six-second concert clips be taken down caused a royal rumpus. Tech blog Techdirt uploaded one of the clips to YouTube and challenged Prince to take it down – “it seems clear that it is fair use” – while the Electronic Frontier Foundation inducted the star into its ‘Takedown Hall of Shame’. It was not one of Prince’s finest moments.
21 May 2013: Prince inks deal with Kobalt Music Group
We wrote: “Kobalt’s Label Services division has a high-profile new client: Prince. He’s announced plans to partner with Kobalt Music Group to release his own material, as well as that of new artists, using Kobalt’s label services for marketing and distribution. Prince, meanwhile, will be handling the artist development and recording for the new artists signed through the deal.”
In hindsight: We don’t remember any of the artists signed through Prince’s Kobalt relationship, although it’s possible some gems came through who weren’t publicly linked with the initiative. But it’s worth remembering that Prince was early, again, to a new industry trend: label services.
14 August 2013: Prince gets on Twitter, but will he take down his own video?
We wrote: “Early this morning, Prince posted a series of tweets from the official account of his latest band 3rd Eye Girl. Sadly not before being told about the existence of a Caps-Lock key. ‘PRINCE’S 1ST TWEET… TESTING 1, 2…’ was followed by ‘PRINCE’S 2ND TWEET.’ and then (learning fast) a picture of his dinner (‘PRINCE’S 3RD TWEET: DID EYE ADD 2 MUCH PEPPER?’). He went on to show a self-mocking sense of humour by posting a link to a YouTube video of 3rd Eye Girl performing (‘CATCH THIS NOW B4 MY LAWYERS DEW’), ending with ‘1st selfie’ (albeit one without, in fact, Prince appearing in the picture).”
In hindsight: Prince’s various copyright battles led some critics to label him as a humourless stick-in-the-mud when it came to all things digital. Actually, the social media era frequently showcased a wicked sense of humour too. And the greatest passport photo in rock…
PRINCE ROGERS NELSON::PASSPORT PICTURE 2/11/16 pic.twitter.com/lgdLCXQ9y2
— Prince (@prnlegacy) February 11, 2016
28 January 2014: Prince sues bootleg-linkers with $1m-a-head copyright lawsuits
We wrote: ‘Prince sues own fans’ is the common line in reports of the 22 lawsuits filed by Prince against Facebook users and blog owners yesterday, with each facing a damages claim of $1m for sharing links to his live performances online… A counter view, though, is that the lawsuits are less frivolous than, say, going on the warpath over short Vine videos shot at concerts. The usernames of the bloggers – WorldOfBootleg, TheUltimateBootlegExperience, NPRUniverse etc – hints at more organised link-sharing sites. In other words, Prince isn’t suing fans for sharing a single link to a live video, as some stories might have you believe: he’s going after sites and Facebook Pages sharing hundreds.”
In hindsight: ‘Artist sues own fans’ has been a toxic media story since the days of Metallica and Napster. Prince was never shy of filing takedowns against content uploaded by fans, but it’s worth remembering his real ire was reserved for commercial bootleggers.
2 October 2014: Ask Prince anything on Facebook. Just don’t expect him to answer
We wrote: “We’ll charitably suggest that Prince has a bit more work to do if he wants to make the most of social media though: with 4,214 questions on the post, he has so far answered… one of them: a curious question asking him to ‘address the importance of ALL music being tuned to 432hz sound frequencies’ which Prince responded to with a link to a website explaining ‘Here’s why you should convert your music to 432 Hz’.”
In hindsight: We still haven’t converted our music to 432 Hz. Sorry, Prince.
2 July 2015: It’s not just Apple Music that Prince is missing from
We wrote: “Reports yesterday noting that Prince wasn’t available on Apple Music only told part of the story: the star has removed his back catalogue from every streaming service, seemingly, except for Tidal. Whether that indicates an exclusive deal with the latter service or simply Tidal being slower to remove Prince’s back catalogue when asked remains to be seen.”
In hindsight: At the time, Spotify pointed the finger at “Prince’s publisher”, which it said had “asked all streaming services to remove his catalogue”. Our instincts were right with the Tidal exclusivity however…
10 August 2015: Prince’s new album will be a Tidal-exclusive… but for how long?
We wrote: “As anticipated, the next Prince album will be exclusive to streaming service Tidal, although the details of whether this is a time-limited deal have not been announced. ‘Hitnrun’ will launch on Tidal on 7 September… ‘After one meeting, it was obvious that Jay Z and the team he has assembled at Tidal recognise and applaud the effort that real musicians put into their craft to achieve the very best they can at this pivotal time in the music industry,’ said Prince. ‘Secondly, 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’.”
In hindsight: The details of that “non-restrictive arrangement” are a matter for the courts nowadays, with the dispute between Tidal and Prince’s estate. Prince later suggested that the HitnRun exclusive would last “a few years”. It was one of the albums that sparked further debate within the music industry about long-term exclusives, and whether they do more harm than good by penalising paying subscribers on the services that miss out on the music.
27 October 2015: Prince rejoins Instagram with flurry of photos
We wrote: “Prince appears to have settled on a formula for social media: join a service, post a few times, then delete everything and sit back to enjoy people calling you enigmatic all over again. So enjoy Prince’s Instagram account while you can: having fired it up again this week under the ‘Princestagram’ moniker, Prince has already posted 88 images and video clips at the time of writing. Most of them are shots of himself throughout his career, although there are also some jokey memes… But as we say, if the account isn’t wiped by the end of the year, we’ll be surprised.”
In hindsight: We were surprised.
26 April 2016: Prince’s death sparks surge in album and song sales
We wrote: “Billboard reports that in the US alone, 654k Prince albums were sold between 15 and 24 April – Prince died on the 21st – along with 2.82m individual song downloads. On 22 April alone his albums sold 227k copies while his songs generated 960k downloads in the US. This trend is reflected elsewhere too: in the UK, yesterday’s midweek chart saw a clean sweep of Prince albums in the top five of the Official Albums Chart, with another five lower down the top 40, and six of Prince’s songs set to re-enter the top 40 Official Singles chart.”
In hindsight: The post-death sales and streams bounce is now a familiar part of the music industry, and (slightly creepily) digital services race to get their tributes and playlists live to capitalise. The IFPI has just announced that Prince was the ninth biggest-selling recording artist of 2016, on a list that included another late star, David Bowie, in second place.
All the stories above come from Music Ally’s daily music-industry news bulletin, which we’ve been publishing since 2002. Want to give it a try? You can sign up for a free trial here