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Opinion The best way to celebrate Prince’s life: Actually pay for his music

Flowers lay on a T-shirt signed by fans of singer Prince at a makeshift memorial outside the Apollo Theatre in New York. (Andres Kudacki/Associated Press)

After Prince’s untimely death last week, folks trying to share his songs on Twitter and Facebook via YouTube clips — the modern mode of mourning in our digital age — were stumped. Ditto those who turned to Spotify or Rhapsody or Apple’s streaming service for solo bingeing.

Needless to say, this caused much frustration with those who feel entitled to free, instant access to every scrap of #content ever created.

“There’s a good chance you want to hear and see more Prince today,” wrote Peter Kafka at re/code. “That’s harder than it should be. Or, at least, harder than you’re accustomed to when pop icons die.”

Emphasis mine, because “should” is an interesting word choice here. “Should,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “used in auxiliary function to express obligation, propriety, or expediency” and “used in auxiliary function to express what is probable or expected.” And while Kafka backtracked a bit almost immediately — as if implicitly understanding that even tacitly imposing an obligation on the Purple One was gauche — he still complained that “sometimes you don’t want to think about music — you want to feel music. . . . Too bad we can’t all feel it right now.”

Now, this is a bit of sophistic silliness. There are actually plenty of ways one could binge on Prince’s music, that one could feel Prince deep within them. One could purchase a subscription to Tidal. For just $10, one would gain instant access to virtually everything Prince ever recorded for a whole month. That’s an amazingly good deal. If streaming’s not your thing, you could check out Amazon, which offers 21 Prince albums (and two Prince singles) for instant download at prices between 99 cents and $23.99. I myself downloaded Prince’s finest work, Batman.* If you’re an Apple guy or gal, iTunes has you covered with a similar selection.

What Kafka means is that there’s no way to “feel it right now” for free. There’s no way to access the life’s work of a great artist for free. As comic book artist Erik Larsen — who famously ditched Marvel to work for artist-owned Image — put it on Twitter: “Prince didn’t make it easy for you to steal his music. Here’s how to binge listen to it: 1. Buy a bunch of Prince’s music. 2. Listen to it.”

This, of course, is one of Prince’s great triumphs: he went to war with the record labels and won, regaining access to his masters and full control over his back catalogue. But it’s not just the labels he had to fight, especially in recent years: it was everyone who thought he “should” make his property easy to access for no money. He zealously protected his rights, going after websites that broadcast his intellectual property without his permission and without compensating him. The reason you can’t “feel it right now for free” is because Prince understood the value of his work and fought to protect it. Sometimes he may have been a bit overzealous in his self-advocacy—he rarely erred on the side of fair use—but he never let himself be taken advantage of.

Despite rather famously hating the Internet, Prince was also a rather famous innovator. As Lance Luanoff noted at Mashable, “Prince was not a luddite,” highlighting Prince’s fascinating CD-ROM experiment in 1994. Far from a traditional album,”[Love Symbol] Interactive” “was a crafty melding of music and imagery that effectively used the nascent multimedia PC platform to showcase the Artist and his music in the best possible light. In addition to a quirky game that involved searching the CD-ROM contents for puzzle pieces to recreate his symbol, or what we called ‘the Glyph,’ there were embedded music videos and interviews with Prince’s contemporaries.”

He didn’t even hate the Internet, necessarily. “An early adopter of the Internet, he was the first person to release an album online — his 1998 Crystal Ball record was initially only available through Internet and phone pre-order,” Natalie Robehmed noted at Forbes. “Prince even formed an online proto-music-streaming service NPGMusicClub back in 2001.” His freedom from the record labels allowed him to experiment (often unsuccessfully) with new and innovative distribution models.

But all of these models were based on the idea that his artistic output had value, that if people wanted access to his work they “should” pay for it. I’ll be honest, I was never the biggest Prince fan in the world; I didn’t hate him, or anything, I was just kind of ambivalent. That being said, I always had a great deal of respect for his commitment to his own sense of self-worth, to the idea that art of value was worth paying for — and compensating the artist for.

*Remember: It’s not trolling if you believe it.