In my high school there was a rumor that would occasionally circulate that Prince attended for one day before switching to Minneapolis Central. It’s almost certain that this is not true, but it speaks to just how badly people wanted a piece of him to belong to them. What makes him so remarkable is just how hard that was to do. He gave up only what he wanted to and nothing more and got away with it. As one of the most prolific, popular, and respected artists of the last four decades he could have done whatever he wanted. So he built his own studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota and recorded material that we might not hear for another decade, if at all.
It’s not enough to say he was prolific. He was on a mission, and only he’ll know if he completed it or even what it was. I’m sure a lot of remembrances will mention his dogged efforts to keep his music off the internet, some painting it as a quixotic crusade and others as evidence of his desire to truly own his art forever. People might snicker at his DMCA complaints against Vine clips featuring his work, dismissing it as a bizarre power grab from an artist past his prime. But is he wrong? Is it really that crazy for someone with a work ethic most people would kill for to work to prevent its passive consumption?
Another comment people might bandy about is his view of the internet being “over”. Again, people can laugh him off as quixotic but is he wrong? I’ve read more thinkpieces than I care to mention that make the same basic point: “the internet will kill music”. I don’t agree that the internet will kill music and I don’t really think Prince would either. Because he didn’t fight that stuff to protect himself from us. I think he did it to protect us from ourselves. He labored for it because it had a value that is wholly separate from streaming revenue or record deals or intellectual property. He gave a shit, and he wanted everybody else to give a shit too.
He didn’t have his team of “female black lawyers” take down Vines because he didn’t want people to enjoy his music without giving him money. He did it to try and get people to focus on that ineffable quality that he spent his whole career trying to put out into the world, and the outpouring of grief and remembrances tells me he more than achieved that aim. He recorded under different names and assembled new groups because the market couldn’t support the amount of material he wanted to release. I suppose it’s reasonable to snicker about his idiosyncrasies, but there’s a lesson that is as universal as he was unique: music is not its delivery mechanism and art is supposed to matter enough to people that they devote their lives to it, not consume it in the most convenient way possible or refuse to create unless it’s economically viable. When people say the internet is killing music what they really mean is it’s killing the music industry, an industry Prince spent a career bending to his will through work ethic, determination, and the kind of talent that people usually only get through deals with the devil. I’m certainly in no position to know or guess how music will reach people in ten years, but I’m guessing people will want to listen to Prince on it and I have a feeling that if we can hear his music it’ll be on his terms. RIP.