A couple of weeks ago I had a hankering for watching a Prince music video. I didn't really care which one it was as long as it was from the 80s. When I searched for any on YouTube, I barely got any hits and when I clicked on one for When Doves Cry, the video played without sound. I was puzzled, tried a different video, and got the same result: a muted music video. Finally scrolling down to the comments area, I discovered that all Prince videos on YouTube wouldn't have sound because the Artist himself was trying to "reclaim the Internet." This meant he was attacking any and all "illegal" uses of his property, including both his music and videos. For some reason, I hadn't been aware of this controversy at all for the past couple of years.
According to stories from a year ago, Prince hired a British-based company called Web Sheriff to hunt down those who were using his material in a pirately fashion. They've gone after sites like YouTube, Ebay and Pirate Bay on his behalf. It's actually quite fitting that a prince should be attempting to suppress pirates with a sheriff. The problem being that Prince is yet another in the long line of people misunderstanding the Internet and its potential for the future of music and promotion. I know I keep coming back to this issue on this blog, but it's something I feel quite passionate about.
I can fully understand not wanting your copyrighted work to be sold as pirated copies via Ebay (although I've never come across any pirated music except for bootleg concerts) or to be distributed free via torrents, but uploading Prince's music videos or using his songs in YouTube video clips isn't pirating in the same way. YouTube is often the only place people can view what they want on demand - before the giant Mighty Boosh purge a year ago, I was first introduced to the series via YouTube. How else was I to watch a series that is only broadcast on foreign networks and can only be purchased in a different region code? And because of the exposure on YouTube, I ended up becoming a huge fan, buying all three series and the live DVD in Region 2, and then buying a DVD player that could play them. Not to mention BBC iPlayers don't work for anyone outside the UK, which has forced me to find alternate, seemingly "illegal," ways to watch documentaries or series that I can't find any other way. The BBC has been particularly ornery when it comes to watching their content; not only have they had tons of clips removed from YouTube, but they don't allow foreign viewers to watch their clips via YouTube unless they're posted to the BBC Worldwide account. A completely counterproductive tactic. If those at BBC were on the ball, they could see YouTube as a marketing measurement tool. The more people trying to watch a particular show or series from other parts of the world, the more they could potentially market their product there by releasing on an appropriate format.
And when I want to see a music video, I won't be sat in front of the television waiting for a Prince music video to pop up on the music video channel. Hell would be having a toboggan party before I would see a music video from anybody on music television. YouTube has transformed the music video industry in that any artist with any budget can get exposure without television executives, advertisers and programmers getting in the way. The fans who are posting Prince music videos are not personally profitting from them - they are merely providing a service to other Prince fans. The greed is not coming from them, it's from Prince himself. It's a shame that someone who has had such a visionary career in music can't see the future this time. It's also rather ironic because Prince apparently received a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 because he was the first artist to release an entire album exclusively on the Internet. Of course this isn't hugely surprising for someone as conflicted as Prince is.
All Prince has succeeded in doing is creating a backlash akin to ones both Madonna and Metallica have experienced. Several videos like the one above are protesting Prince's actions, and Prince fan sites banded together as Prince Fans United to take on the legal take-down requests. Despite this, Prince has continued the crusade, including taking down all fan footage of his cover of Radiohead's Creep at Coachella this year. However, just as Prince has said, you take down one and hundreds more crop up the next day - I managed to watch the Creep cover here (aside from blistering guitar solos, not too much to be excited about). Fighting the proliferation and nature of the Internet is a losing battle, and any victory is a pyrrhic one. As Radiohead has proven, established artists can both continue their success and work within the new framework of technology and music distribution. And with someone like Prince, whose live performances and music videos have been intrinsic to his success, allowing footage of him (which would have been public in the first place) to circulate would only benefit him, especially at this later stage of his career.
I've been a Prince fan since I was a teenager, but this hasn't been the first time I've felt burnt by him. Six years ago, Prince came to Winnipeg, but tickets were well over $100 a piece, so I, being a financially-challenged student, didn't go to the show along with many others who viewed the price tag as exorbitant. I then found out that he performed a much cheaper aftershow at a small venue, but it was too late. The fact I only just found out about this more recent controversy probably says something about how much I've been following Prince these days. Apparently I'm just as out of the loop as Prince is - we're both still caught up in the good old days from 20 years ago.