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We are in a time which all Prince fans have been anticipating for years; some with fear, some with dread. With The Artist’s recent passing, control of his music has changed hands. Along with the announcement that two albums from his legendary “vault” of unreleased music would see the light of day this June, his music has made its way back to various streaming services. As a massive Prince fan, I find myself suffering a conflict of interests.
Firstly – it feels like it took only ten months for Prince’s message to be forgotten. An early champion of the internet as a means of music distribution, he later recanted, declaring the internet to be “over”, before removing his work from Spotify in 2015. He was a prominent figure in the fight for artist’s rights for the last 25 years of his life, in particular against his record label, Warner Bros. Feeling that artists deserved more control over their output, he began appearing in public with “SLAVE” written on his cheek. Seeing his birth name, Prince, become a trademarked cash cow, he changed his stage name to an unpronounceable symbol. His stubbornness led to him fading into obscurity; but this fight was about more than just him and Warner.
With some artists, you can speculate over whether they’d be happy with their music being made available to stream; for example, how John Lennon would feel when The Beatles came to iTunes, and later to Spotify. With Prince, you don’t have to wonder. It’s arguably not even necessary, despite the rumoured tax bill; Prince was the biggest-selling album artist of 2016. To witness his music return to streaming sites feels like a betrayal of his wishes.
Despite this, there’s a glaring positive in his music being back on streaming services; in light of his death, there will be plenty of people out there, eager to find out more than the hit singles which played in circulation on radio ten months ago, but unprepared to part with money on a chance. Consumers test the waters these days before buying music, if they buy music at all – that’s what makes streaming the most popular form of music consumption. So to have the music on the number-one platform opens it up to millions of potential new fans.
It was in this way which I discovered Prince; from hearing “Mountains” on BBC 6 Music, and following it up by exploring his hits via Spotify. Would I have bought a Prince CD off the basis of one song? Certainly not. In the last few years of his life, I argued that Prince was stifling his legacy; his constant pursuit to have his music taken down from streaming sites, and even YouTube, seemed puzzling. His legacy would live on in his music; his music would live on in those who listened. Who would when it wasn’t so easily available?
This leaves us with the question of which legacy is more important; his music, or his fight for artists’ rights?