The music industry is modern-day “slavery.” Record labels are running a “shell game.” Music streaming is sucking artists dry. And rights-management groups are nothing more than “collection agencies” that fail to pass along any real money to artists.
At least, that’s how Prince sees it.
In a private sit-down with 10 black journalists deep inside his Paisley Park Studios in suburban Minneapolis Saturday night, the reclusive singer, musician and businessman explained his crusade to remake the music industry and wrestle control back into the hands of musicians.
“You just have to blow it up. That’s what it’s going to take,” said the seven-time Grammy Award-winning mogul of what he describes as an unfair digital-royalty structure that has emerged in the past few years.
He just let his words hang in the air for a bit.
You see, he knows of what he speaks. He has made a career out of challenging the music industry. In 1993 the megastar dropped his name in a dispute with his label, Warner Bros.—remember the Artist Formerly Known As … and the Unpronounceable Symbol? He has since patched things up, entering into a new contract with the label in 2014 after gaining his catalog back.
As he leaned forward in his chair at the head of the glass-top conference table, the icon born as Prince Rogers Nelson compared the music industry to slavery and called ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, little more than a “collection agency,” claiming that little of the royalties it collects from streamers on behalf of its artists actually make it into the bank accounts of the artists themselves. He said that he resigned from the organization.
Meanwhile, streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and the new Apple Music are fast becoming the major source of music consumption for consumers, supplanting traditional CD sales and even album downloads.
And with that change, Prince argued, has come a dramatic shift in how money is made and who gets paid. The labels make the money. The streaming services make the money. The individual artist, he maintains, makes little to nothing.
For instance, according to a recent analysis, each time a song is played on a streaming service such as Spotify, an individual artist signed to a record label can make, on average, as little as $.0011. Yes, that’s about 1/10th of a penny. And it’s even less if the artist is an independent.
That’s why, last month, the day after Apple launched its Apple Music streaming service, he pulled most of his catalog of music from most of those streaming services, including Spotify, Rdio and Deezer. And that’s why, instead, he has signed on with Jay Z’s Tidal music-streaming service to exclusively stream and distribute his next album, HitNRun, on Sept. 7. Jay Z invested in the company earlier this year as a way to more equitably share revenues with artists, often bypassing the labels.
“I sat down with Jay, and I really like what he is doing,” said Prince. “He’s trying to eventually be a one-stop shop for the artist.”
The 57-year-old Prince had a clear message for any talented, up-and-coming artists who may be seduced by lucrative recording contracts and promises of millions of dollars, fame and fortune: “Don’t sign.”
He firmly believes that once artists sign a contract, they are giving away their rights, their control to new revenue streams and, ultimately, their independence.
“It’s about freedom. Don’t sign,” Prince said.
Bryan Monroe is a veteran journalist, author and professor at Temple University. He helped lead the team that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Hurricane Katrina, was the editor-in-chief of both Jet and Ebony magazines—where he conducted the last interview with Michael Jackson—and was editor of CNNPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter.