Prince: So Close, Yet So Far

from the so-right,-but-so-wrong dept

The musician Prince has been quite fascinating to follow over the years from a business model perspective. He has aggressively experimented, and for a while seemed to be the perfect example of a musician who understood how to embrace new business models allowed by the internet. He was creating tons of new music, some of which he was giving away free in order to promote scarce aspects of his business model, such as concerts (he sold out 21 straight concerts in London after giving away his latest CD totally free), while also embracing the idea of getting people to pay him upfront to create music. He also experimented with things like having companies sponsor him, setting up a subscription fan club and even owning a dance club in Vegas where he would perform regularly. All were perfect examples of the sorts of business models that we talk about all the time. And the model was clearly quite successful for Prince, helping him to earn quite a bit of money off of those scarcities.

Yet, about a year ago, we all began to realize that, as successful as Prince had been in embracing these new business models, he had yet to realize why they worked, and started to attack the very tools that made them so successful. For example, he sued YouTube, eBay and The Pirate Bay. Then he went after fan sites and even a bunch of musicians who made a tribute album for his birthday. And, of course, he famously was involved in a few cases of demanding people take down YouTube videos that just happen to have Prince music playing in the background.

The problem is that he while he’s benefited from these tools that made various scarcities (the creation of new music, concerts, etc.) more valuable, he seems to overvalue the content and undervalue (extremely) those tools. Thus, he seems totally against the idea of anyone else being able to profit from the music, even if it means he profits more from it. It’s a common mistake, but Prince seems to have taken it to extremes. He’s benefited so much from these models — and in misunderstanding them, he risks destroying his legacy. He could have been a pioneer adored by fans, like Trent Reznor — but, instead, he’s been taking a very anti-fan approach. While there are still plenty of diehards, his views have turned off many former fans.

It’s tragic, too, because you read interviews like one he just did where he expresses his disdain for the internet these days, and you just wish he would make the connection. He’s right about music, by itself, not being a good product to sell online, but then misses the point that this isn’t a bad thing if you use it (as he himself has done repeatedly) to drive more business to other parts of your business model:

“Today, it’s not realistic to expect to put out new music and profit from it. There’s no point in trying to put new music out there and keep it from being (exploited).”

And that’s why you build business models (again, as he himself has done) where the musician benefits from that “exploitation.”

It’s really too bad that such a pioneer doesn’t even realize how he was a pioneer, and is now trashing part of what made him so successful.

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Comments on “Prince: So Close, Yet So Far”

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Lonnie E. Holder says:


Obviously Prince must feel that he was insufficiently able to benefit from his business model experiments to keep doing it. I see his comments as his opinion and one option that musicians might take in response to piracy; more live performances and fewer (or zero) CD releases.

Prince became successful long before the internet existed. He decided to try it. He appears to have been unable to exploit the internet in the way he wanted (based on his comments). He moved on. Time for a different business model.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Exploitation

Obviously Prince must feel that he was insufficiently able to benefit from his business model experiments to keep doing it.

No, actually, if you read his quotes, and look at the stats he has made it clear that he benefited a ton. But he was so focused on “control” that he was willing to harm his own marketing potential to keep control. To him, a smaller market with more control was a better deal than a bigger market with less control.

He’s free to do it, but it was not because he felt he didn’t benefit. He has admitted to benefiting.

Anonymous Coward says:

this seems to be a recurring pattern in a lot of things. Someone stumbles across a great idea, does great with it… but then just does a bunch of weird stuff to undermine their achievement. It just seems that these people ran into these ideas by accident and when they do weird stuff they are trying to push it back into what they thought was the good and proper way to do it. While he’s a wonderful artist he is probably so disconnected to the real world to really even notice when he’s doing great, awesome, or just plain well so he’ll never know he ever made a mistake.

Doug D says:

The Prince

I am from a younger generation who, like others my age, have not been influenced by Prince’s music as other generations before. Being able to still know who Prince is as a person and an icon at my age is a feat in itself, and that means that Prince was successful. I also do understand that Prince can be stingy with the rights to his songs, being that he does not like other people singing his music. If I were a king, or a Prince in his case, would I want my subjects to make parodies of my image, an extension of my identity? Of course not, but hey, get over it!

Brad Eleven (profile) says:

Re: The Prince

I think you nailed it, Doug. Prince apparently has some privacy issues, and seems to have been happy with the new model right up until others recorded versions of his music.

IMHO, it’s not the Internet or the free recordings model that Prince has a problem with–it’s his own vanity, reinforced by decades of simpering flattery. To paraphrase Andre 3000, I know Mr. Nelson would like to think his $#!+ don’t stank, but …

Paul says:

It truly is a shame...

that more big artists can’t be more like Reznor. I remember before he released “The Slip” (the completely free album, unless you bought it on CD, etc), he had released one or two of the songs as free downloads. Some fan decided he’d create a music video for the song “Discipline” wherein it looked like low-quality (purposely… sorta like 8-bit art) animated version of The Village People performing the song. It was quite funny and entertaining. Trent Reznor actually put a link to the video on his homepage, joking that apparently someone leaked their ideas on how they’re going to perform the song at concerts.

Too many people still forget that music is first and foremost an art, not a product. Their product is really themselves. If they can’t sell themselves and make fans like them, they’re not going to hit a plateau and never be able to get any real returns.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ah, you would probably benefit from understanding precisely why Prince has such strong feelings about these matters. Basically, when he started to hit the mainstream, the labels told him he was effectively owned (down to his name) by them. That includes little tricks like owning the glass masters for CD duplication.

I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) that when it comes to things like Trademark, you must either defend it or lose it. Similarly, after having his creative output “managed” for so long by the labels, he is now in the position to control it all himself. He’s not really thinking about your proposed business models; he’s thinking about all those years where they told him what to do with his music.

Anonymous Coward says:

Maybe free doesn't work for everyone

This sounds like a good time to bring up Achem’s Razor..

if there are a number of explanations for observed phenomena, the simplest explanation is preferred

Maybe the simplest examplanation is that the free music model wasn’t working for him. Maybe he wasn’t making “quite a bit of money”, maybe he was making a pitance compared with the money he earned selling the music. Income levels are relative, what may seem like “quite a bit of money” to you may not be that much to Prince.

Also this is the second story in as many days in which you claim people in the entertainment industry are sabotaging themselves. These are business people and I can assure you that they will not knowingly harm their bottom lines. Ultimately they are taking actions that they see as self-serving and that doesn’t fit into your plan of free music for the masses so you say they are acting irrationally. Maybe you are the one who needs to reconsider the fact that quit possibly the free music as a promotional vehicle for artists will not work for all artists.

As I have said before it should be the artist who determines which business model works for them, not pirates sharing their music on the internet that force bands into “embracing free music”.

I’m just sayin’…

pawn says:

I don’t want to judge Prince. But this is my guess.

In the 80’s, he made lots of cash being a very popular singer. Now he makes less cash as a popular singer from the 80’s.

He probably doesn’t want to believe that he’s irrelevant as an artist, so he looks for things to blame. Piracy, internet, youtube, whatever all look bad to him. I wonder if anyone will care about Hannah Montana’s opinions about technology and business in 25 years.

LoveSexyDC (user link) says:

Control and Music

The bottomline here is that it IS his music – period.

HIS music to release or not – to give for free or not – to sell or hide away.

First and foremost Prince is an artist and it must be galling for him to see the many ways people take his songs and bastardize them — the same way it would offend an oil painter when a punk comes in his studio to spray paint a slogan across his paintings. Then the punk has the never to declare it now his own work of art.

This is beyond a “business model” or the money.

If you were an artist, you’d understand and want complete control of your artworks too.

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