Prince: King who embraced new tech as often as he broke conventions
Like most of the children of the 1980s, I grew up on the inspirational music and outrageous fashion of Prince Rogers Nelson, who died last week aged 57.
Prince was as famous for his gender-bending attire as his prolific creativity, producing hits off virtually every album — especially the Purple Rain single that was the title track of his film of the same name. It won him the 1985 Oscar for best original song score.
His songs were the soundtrack of my youth.
Prince touched several generations with his abundance of musical genius. He produced an album a year and left 48 collections of epoch-defining songs behind.
But he was also so much more. The little master from Minneapolis was also a technology visionary who began experimenting with digital music distribution in a way that few other artists did.
This was long before the era of streaming music allowed other musicians like Jay Z and Van Morrison to start their own services, Tidal and Pure.
Only David Bowie, another gifted and coincidentally androgynous gender flirt, had such an understanding of technology and the impact it would have on music.
Prince was ground-breaking in more ways than just music. After he signed a $100-million deal with Warner Bros in 1992, he discovered a year later that the label owned his master recordings.
He wrote the word "Slave" on his cheek during public appearances, changed his name to "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" and identified himself with a "love symbol" combining the icons for male and female.
When his six-record deal with Warner expired, Prince formed his own label (NPG) and sold a five-CD set of songs, called Crystal Ball, via his website.
This made him the first major artist to release an album entirely online. This compilation of unreleased songs would later win him a Webby lifetime achievement award (in 2006).
He experimented with a range of new technologies as they appeared, including the then novel CD-Rom approach, which gave users a modicum of interactivity before the Internet was widely used.
Prince Interactive , released in 1994, contained a game which let his fans digitally explore his famous Paisley Park studios at his home — where he was found dead in a lift last week.
In 2001, long before the coming of streaming music (led by Spotify and YouTube), he started a site called NPGMusicClub.com that offered monthly subscriptions.
He even had a SoundCloud-like approach to releasing snippets of his music.
He started a trend of giving his album away to concert goers, something that would become widespread only years later when music piracy forced musicians to find an alternative to the old business models. The industry realised concert goers would pay for the experience of seeing an artist perform even while they stole music from the same artist online.
Prince was a musical genius, who played an assortment of instruments. When his first album For You was released in 1978, he played and arranged everything himself. His target was total artistic control.
In contrast, a year later, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall credited 40 studio musicians and 15 arrangers and composers.
His career was filled with impressive feats like this.
In the year Purple Rain came out, 1984, he held the title for the number one album, single and film in the US.
Prince even predicted the fading fortunes of online music: "The Internet’s completely over," he said in a 2010 interview. "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. The Internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated."
Prince was a true revolutionary. He was not only a masterful one-of-a-kind, he was a master of everything.
Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff magazine
This article first appeared in the Financial Mail