Raging Against the Machine
“I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Frederick Douglas
“If you don’t own your masters, then your master owns you.” — Prince
When word broke out that legendary entertainer Prince had passed away last April, I was heartbroken. A monumental musical career had ended due to a tragic drug overdose. The eclectic, gifted, and mysterious “wunderkind” was gone. I went to Tidal immediately, the only streaming service at the time that had Prince’s entire catalog due to Prince’s fervent support for true musicians’ rights, integrity, and ownership. (Tidal pays 5 times more than Spotify in regards to per-stream payout). I played Adore numerous times while tears trickled down my cheeks. I thought about the conversations I had with my father about being one’s self, and how Prince was, and always will be, a conduit to discuss the complicated subjects of individuality, gender, sexuality, and love.
For all of the terrible reasons that people futilely compare incomparable larger-than-life geniuses, my high school friends and I partook in the eternal debate of MJ versus Prince. Prince, the multi- instrumentalist; who had taught himself how to play every instruments he played; who composed and arranged his own music, couldn’t be compared to Michael Jackson — though Michael was the greatest entertainer of all time. It was intellectually lazy.
I could argue about the legend of Prince until the end of time. But a memory of Prince that should never be forgotten is his speech at the 2015 BET Awards. It is where he expressed his unwavering love for black people — when it seemed as if some media outlets were hell bent on perpetuating the dangerous narrative of black pathology by justifying unarmed civilians being killed at the hands of police officers. His stance further solidified my appreciation for him. The man was fearless. His valor, should not be news flash to anyone, he spent his entire career fighting against the exploitative industry known as the Music Industry.
Therefore, when word broke out that Prince’s music would be on Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora streaming services last week, I said, “Hell No.” This is in direct conflict with Prince’s legacy.
This is in direct conflict with Prince’s legacy.
The music that Prince left behind will play for an eternity, but Prince’s voracious commitment to artistic integrity and ownership will be arguably just as significant as the music.
Prince’s acrimonious relationship with Warner Bros. goes back decades. There were stories that Prince had demanded executive heads to leave his studio for suggesting sounds that should go into a song he did in 1977. Here was an individual so wary of corporate control that he was willing to go to great lengths to demand his artistic freedom at whatever cost.
Here was an individual so wary of corporate control that he was willing to go to great lengths to demand his artistic freedom at whatever cost.
The battles at Warner Bros. were well documented, and started to take root around the early 1990s after Prince released “Diamonds and Pearls” in October of 1991. He was offered a 100 million dollar contract for six albums with album advances. In exchange, Prince would have to give up his publishing to the company and he would have to release the albums under the company’s name. These demands infuriated him, taking the one thing that he loved must — his musical freedom. He would later produce pre- recorded music, and attend shows with “slave” written across his face to show the world how incredibly demoralizing and insidious companies could be.
So given the history of Prince’s laser-like focus on all things Prince, how could his expansive catalog be sold to some streaming services, knowing he would have denied such an act?
The truth is money matters. And because death provides no forewarning, we try to plan for it well ahead of time. That Prince — ever the contrarian — even failed to do that was shocking to me. It was as if he could not envision a world without him in it; to be fair, neither could we. The iconic figure’s estate tax was an estimated 100 million dollars. Because Prince had no will to lessen the tax hit, the estate tax was reportedly 50 percent according to Billboard. Most of the tax burden came from federal taxes and the lesser amount coming from Minnesota taxes. Universal Music Publishing Group now has the rights to Prince’s songwriting. According to the New York Times, the deal gives Universal long- term administration rights for hits like “ When Doves Cry,” and will allow these songs to be on many services according to the New York Times.
The recent actions by Prince’s Estate should not take away from the artist’s fight against corporate control over musicians’ rights and ownership. If anything, it should only further embolden artists to stand up and demand what is theirs. Why should an industry that would not be anything without musicians have such an unequal and inordinate amount of power? Prince was a trailblazer no doubt and his music will live forever, but I will always remember the fighter raging against the music industry and exposing their exploitative ways one note at a time.