For my first Rockologist column in awhile, I thought I’d write about Prince. Anybody remember him?
Anyway, a week or so back his Purple Highness made some news with his comments in an interview with London’s Daily Mirror to the effect that “The Internet Is Over”.
I’ve always liked Prince. Musically, the guy is just about as close to genius as it gets (or at least he once was), and for awhile there back in his Purple Rain eighties he was commercially pretty much unstoppable as well. Like a lot of the great ones who’ve had ten year lapses between great records — Springsteen, Dylan, and Neil Young all spring to mind here — I also never counted out the possibility of a miraculous full-on artistic comeback for Prince.
He’s definitely still got the musical chops to pull it off for one thing. As recently as 2004, I witnessed a Prince show (touring behind his then current album Musicology) that I’d rank as among the most electrifying live performances I’ve ever seen.
But let’s face it.
Prince’s greatest songs — which are what it really comes down to anyway — are long since behind him. By my own estimate, the last truly great Prince album — start to stop — was 1987’s Sign O’ The Times. In 2010 terms, what this means is that when it comes to anything being truly “over,” Prince may just want to consult his mirror.
Still, naively flawed as it may be, I have to admire Prince’s Purple way of thinking, at least in principle.
Like many forward thinking artists, Prince chose early on to take a proactive stance towards the challenges posed by the emerging internet technology of the time, and the resulting new paradigm of marketing music.
Some of his ideas were good ones too. Coldplay and Tom Petty (among others) have long since adopted Prince’s original idea of giving away CDs at their concerts for example. Some of his other ideas — like going after internet sites and blogs who dared to reproduce his exalted Purple likeness — well, maybe not so much.
Even so — and you can debate his Purple wisdom until you find yourself under your own personal Cherry Moon — I have to applaud a statement that gets so directly to the heart of the matter as this one:
“I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it.”
That to me says it all right there.
This so-called, great new paradigm of commercial music distribution via the internet is no more a revolution than it is a case of trading one devil for another. The suits may be new ones, but they are still suits just the same. For all of this talk of a wild, wild west atmosphere affording greater and freer access to music at the click of a mouse or the touch of an iPhone, today’s corporate technology behemoths seek to control this — most often at the expense of the artists — every bit as much as yesterdays major label distribution system once did.
On that point, his Purple Majesty is spot on.
Which is exactly why the most forward thinking artists — like Radiohead and most recently Wilco — have sought out their own distribution models.
The recording industry is not alone in its troubles though. It’s hardly news to anyone at this point, but 2010 has proven to be a tough year for the concert business as well.
Some of this can be easily explained away of course. Nobody was counting on Bono breaking his back on the eve of the West Coast leg of U2’s 360 Tour, or on Art Garfunkel pulling out of the latest Simon & Garfunkel reunion for similarly health-related reasons. Other factors in the downturn of ticket sales however, aren’t quite as easily explained.
Take the return of Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair festival for example. After an absence of more than a decade, surely the idea of bringing back a little late nineties-style “grrrl power” had to be a no-brainer, right?
As well-intentioned as the whole Lilith Fair idea might have been in the nineties, the combination of softer leaning rock and feminist politics just doesn’t seem near as attractive now as it did back then. Even with the hip-hop flavor of Mary J. Blige co-headlining some of the shows, this just doesn’t add up to a can’t-miss lineup in times where the entertainment dollar might normally buy you that type of a soapbox.
McLachlan herself is a wonderfully gifted artist, but is years between albums and artistic relevance. She is best known today as the face and the voice of those late-night TV animal cruelty ads. Once Carly Simon pulled out of Lilith Fair, McLachlan was left with a supporting cast of artists like Sheryl Crow, Heart, and Erykah Badu — all of whom bring considerable artistic credibility, but limited box-office appeal to the table.
What’s missing, but sorely needed to sell tickets — for better or for worse — is the star power of a Beyonce or a Lady Gaga. The fact that Lilith Fair is in commercial trouble this year should surprise no one who was paying any kind of attention.
Taking both McLachlan and U2 out of the equation for a minute though, the current woes of the concert business run far deeper. While there’s no Coldplay, Radiohead or Springsteen level sure-fire ticket selling bet out there this summer, what’s left has been strangely hit and miss.
Some acts — like Roger Waters and Neil Young — have been doing surprisingly well.
In the case of Waters, a chance to see The Wall performed in it’s entirety, complete with all the props of the original show (which only played a few cities during its original 1980 run) comes as close to a Pink Floyd reunion as its likely to ever get. Neil Young’s Twisted Road shows offer a rare opportunity to see a living legend in an intimate setting where he’s been dividing the sets between the acoustic folky-favorites, full-on electric solo shreds with Old Black, and premiering brand new songs like “Love And War.”
Meanwhile, normally solid summer tour warhorses like the Eagles and the American Idol franchise are seeing empty seats and canceled shows.
The Eagles inflated ticket prices are most likely finally catching up to them, and quite frankly it’s about damn time. Hell froze over long ago gentlemen, as did the price for a nostalgic evening at the Hotel California.
Similarly over-priced acts (and I’m talking to you, Neil Young) might want to take note. As for American Idol? Well, a season whose brightest light was Crystal Bowersox will only carry you so far, right?
Getting back to Prince, there is one other comment he made in that London Daily Mirror interview that I think bares repeating here:
“The Internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated.”
Like the psychedelic sixties before it, today we think of the eighties/MTV era as a time of great new artistic breakthroughs and possibilities. Some of those who pioneered them — like David Bowie, U2, or even Prince himself — remain either active or influential today.
Others — like Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper and Boy George — have lingered on as reminders of a simpler time every bit as rooted in nostalgia as the love beads, tie-die, and patchouli incense of the sixties.
It’s time for the next New Paradigm.