Music industry watchers and fans have been keeping track of experiments in giving away one’s music to build audience. Some observers have theorized that the trend (exemplified by Prince giving away a CD in London’s Sunday Mail and Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want digital downloads of their latest album allows major artists to do two things:
- do an end-run around traditional labels and their distribution channels; and
- build a brand using loss-leading CDs and digital downloads that will entice new and continuing fans to go to concerts, buy special merchandise and the like
This was elegantly summarized by veteran rock star David Bowie
Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity … So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.
If true, this is a major shift, and it appears that some artists are willing to experiment in the gap. One of the unanswered questions of this shift is whether control is actually being relinquished, or is the real change only happening in who wields the control? In the case of Prince, the answer seems to be the latter. Lawyers on behalf of The Purple One have sent a series of cease-and-desist letters to three fan sites, asking them to remove “offending artworks, images, and even their ‘own photographs of their Prince-inspired tattoos,'” according to the operators of those sites. This is on the heels of Prince’s announcement that he plans to “take on” YouTube, eBay and the Bit Torrent tracker Pirate Bay for aiding unauthorized distributions of his music, videos, etc. Should all this be taken with a grain of salt? This is the same artist, after all, that changed his name to a glyph to protest a contract he found to be unconscionable. Ars Technica notes in the YouTube article that the video distribution site is presumed to have a safe harbor under the DMCA, which would make going right to litigate frivolous and futile. And major media suing its customers have led to bad publicity and bad feelings. On the other hand, Prince is a very successful artist who is seen as not only an iconoclast but also an innovator. His success, or lack thereof, in trying to control his image and performances on the Internet may influence the tack that other artists take in exploring this new(-ish) model of the music biz*. * “new(-ish)” because many individual artists have long relied on concert and merchandise proceeds to actually make money, while actual album sale royalties have been minimal, breakeven or less. Just ask Muddy Waters or Don Henley.