Jeff Miers: Prince uses retailer to again shake up the music industry

“Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas,” sings Bono during “Standup Comedy,” from U2’s wonderful new “No Line on the Horizon” album.

The point is well-taken, certainly, but doesn’t apply to the tiny terror that is Prince. For some 30 years now, the Minneapolis wunderkind has been all about the big idea, and nine times out of 10, he has delivered the goods. In R&B, no one has come close to the Purple One, in terms of sheer talent, vision and rate of creation.

As one of the first high-profile mainstream artists to turn their back on the whole shebang — major label, contract advances, one album every three years, tour that album into the ground ’til you’ve milked every nickel out of it, and so forth — Prince is a bit of a standard-bearer for the “post-industry- collapse” pop movement.

Prince has long been out front, whether he was scrawling “slave” on his face with eyeliner; changing his name to some sort of gender-bending, amorphous symbol; or creating an Internet-only musician-to-fan paradigm back when the majority of his peers still firmly believed the old major-label model was still the only avenue worth pursuing. The ball he started rolling in the early ’90s is the one Radiohead picked up and ran with when they released “In Rainbows” as an Internet- only, pay-what-you-will product.

What has essentially happened in the world of music over the past decade-plus is a revolution in which musicians took over the means of production — the technology to record music and disseminate it — from the fat cats, in hopes of creating a new system of production — one based, theoretically, on a model that would benefit all involved in a more equitable fashion. Prince was one of the first workers to seize the means of production from the industry rulers. As such, he’s a bit of a revolutionary.

It is no surprise that Prince feels at home within the new “everything is up in the air” atmosphere pervading the business of song and sound. This week, he released an album exclusively through Target, blowing off the now-mandated iTunes release in the process. More revolutionary than the simple sidestepping of iTunes, however, is the way Prince has disrupted current notions of value. For $11.98, you can buy the new “Lotusflow3r,” which is not in itself particularly shocking. What is revelatory is the fact that Prince has crammed three discs into the package — two albums of brand new music from him, and one from protege Bria Valentine. That’s an awful lot of tuneage for 12 smackers. And if he can do it, then why can’t everyone else? Producing the music costs a mere fraction of what it once did. Why haven’t list prices reflected this change?

None of this would mean a damn thing if the music itself was a hastily thrown-together collection of studio jams, leftovers or blatant attempts at reclaiming past commercial glories. That, apparently, is not how Prince rolls.

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