The Other Paisley Park Vault: Prince’s Digital Divide and His Legacy

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OPINION 

The notoriety around Prince’s songwriting prolificness perpetuates urban legends about and around him. The lingering rumor about the legendary artist’s “vault” of unreleased music, which some suggest contains thousands of songs, received a booster shot a few months back when the BBC gathered a series of narrative-supporting anecdotes from the engineers and session players he employed over the years. According to those in the studio, recording happened almost daily, sometimes immediately following one of his lengthy concerts. Entire sessions could be deleted on a whim, they explained, while others appeared destined for projects that would never materialize. The interviewees’ respective accounts seem to corroborate one another, adding paint to the now familiar portrait of an artist entirely comfortable with shielding the majority of his work from the general public.

Perhaps that impulse explains one of Prince’s most recent moves: the decision to pull his music off of all streaming services apart from Tidal. Given the timing, which coincided with Apple Music’s rollout, the decision made for good headlines, and also gave rise to speculation as to whether it signaled him aligning with the company more officially, maybe even in a co-ownership capacity. Yet trying to decipher Prince’s motives and reasoning remains as vexing an endeavor now as it has been for decades. Living enigmatically affords him the sort of mystique that promotes collective mythmaking around every facet of his life. Not understanding Prince is a fundamental part of what makes him a star.

Still, the removal of Prince’s albums from Spotify and other competing services exposes something far more distressing than the disappointment of casual fans hoping to hear “Let’s Go Crazy” or “Raspberry Beret” on demand. The ethical solution to that particular first-world predicament can be of course found on Amazon, iTunes, or any other place that sells digital downloads of Purple Rain and Around the World in a Day. But here’s what can’t be found there: just about any Prince album released between 1994 and 2013.

You’re out of luck if you want to hear Chaos And Disorder, The Gold Experience, or 3121 without resorting to dubious torrents. Musicology, the 2004 album Prince gave away for free to every ticketholder on its corresponding U.S. tour, can’t be bought in download form. And that’s just the stuff he released via major labels like Columbia and Warner Bros; his independent NPG Records albums can’t be had anywhere beyond secondary resale markets, often at steep collectors’ markups. He’s also been a prolific collaborator over the years, but again, his work for and with other artists — from Apollonia 6 and The Family to New Power Generation and Mayte — has remained out of print for ages.

Searching YouTube, that notorious if imperfect hub for finding out-of-print material, won’t yield so much as a poor quality rip of something like 1994’s quadruple disc Crystal Ball set, no doubt because of persistent legal interventions made on behalf of the copyright holders. (The wide web of Prince’s YouTube takedowns has even ensnared home videos that happen to include his music playing in the background.)

At a time where the consumption and discovery of music has shifted predominantly from offline to online, the gaps in Prince’s digital discography are hugely frustrating. If all you care about is the hits, you’re more or less covered. But given his prominence and the breadth of his creative output, such a maddening and willful erasure denies this generation a chance to hear the work of a master. This denial of access is worse than any storied Paisley Park vault stuffed with late night studio jams and aborted concept album demos.

Some might call 1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic a lesser record, but in keeping it off Tidal or iTunes or any other digital platform nullifies any chance for younger listeners to experience or draw from it, or to decide for themselves as to whether it’s any good or not. As millennial talents like Kendrick Lamar and Odd Future’s The Internet drop inspiring and warmly received albums so clearly inspired by the black music that came before, Prince’s discography could prove an asset to the people of color actively mapping out a musical future.

Arguably, this is something the industry would likely never allow with a white artist of such stature. Bob Dylan and Neil Young have seen all but their most embarrassing and ridiculous records stay in print or receive a sanctioned reissue. Both of them are the subjects of extensive archival campaigns, drawing from studio sessions and live recordings to satisfy our natural desire as listeners and fans to hear their work in full, or as close to it as possible. Thanks to these efforts, there’s hardly any official Dylan or Young record you can’t hear.

Like these lords of rock, Prince too experienced highly public and tumultuous relationships with the major label system and the industry as a whole. At the time, he adapted in ways that weren’t always popular or even prudent, but he never stopped creating and never stopped producing. From the late 90s onwards, Prince opened new direct connections with his fans through the then-burgeoning online world, sharing his work via the web with those willing to pay for it. Depriving people the ability to hear close to two decades worth of his recorded output online runs counter to that revolutionary ethos, one that put new power in the hands of artists and fans.

Surely Prince has terms that ought to be met. No doubt there are considerations we can’t possibly know about, both personal and professional. But his reconciliation with Warner Bros. a couple years ago should’ve meant greater access to his body of work, not less. These out-of-print records deserve to liberated from this virtual vault, to be heard and reheard, lest he be remembered more as a singles artist and pop icon than a virtuosic composer on par with the greatest in the history of recorded and unrecorded music. Prince’s legacy depends on it.

[ Op/Ed by Gary Suarez ]

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