Corporate Rock Does Still Suck, Right Stevie?

Last weekend, producer engineer, musician and self-appointed conscience for the spirit of rock Steve Albini spoke at the the annual Face the Music conference in Melbourne, where he argued that digital distribution has given musicians the power to control and market their own music. Ever a champion of the DIY aesthetic, his viewpoint is limited but isn't wrong. Musicians who were making money are making less thanks to online streaming and lagging record sales. But more musicians can record their music at home and make it possible for people around the world to hear it. Whether or not that's better for the industry, that much is true, And it's at least a better lot than that of centuries of musicians (right up until the last one) whose music is lost forever. When people say musicians are making less money from their music, they time and time again don't figure in the musicians that used to make nothing and now might make enough for a case of beer - or build enough support to venture a regional tour. 

Those are the artists Albini is speaking for, and he's right. For struggling musicians (who aren't guaranteed a record contract to begin with) things certainly aren't worse anyway than they were in teh heyday of the record industry. Albini likes to talk about the industry and in general he's pretty good at it. But speaking at Melbourne he chose a strange target to represent the dying dinosaur of the big record label. 

“If your little daughter does a kooky dance to a Prince song don’t bother putting it on YouTube for her grandparents to see or a purple dwarf in assless chaps will put an injunction on you," he said. "Did I offend the little guy? Fuck it. His music is poison.”

Prince has notoriously fought against his music being posted on YouTube. I'm not sure why that resulted in so much derision being cast his way because posting songs or albums to YouTube is essentially bootlegging and with crap sound quality to boot, but there you go. He became the source of a lot of jokes for not wanting his work distributed for free and without his permission. I don't know that he ever went after someone for posting a video of their child dancing to one of his songs, however. The Recording Industry Association of America threatened to as a general principle, but I don't know that Prince did.

[EDIT: A reader reminded me of the 2007 case Lenz v Universal Music Corp., in which the US District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that copyright holders must consider fair use when issuing take-down notices for videos posted on the Internet. The case concerned a video of a young girl dancing to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" and was filed by the Universal Music Corporation at a time when Prince wasn't under contract with the label, although he did issue a statement at the time saying he intended to "reclaim his art on the internet." This is no doubt what Albini was referring to, but doesn't affect my larger argument here.]

The RIAA, according to its website, "supports and promotes the creative and financial vitality of the major music companies." Not individual artists but companies. Now this is going to get a bit cloudy (as things often do with Prince) but let's think about what a company is. Most people who aren't Mitt Romney don't think that corporations and people are the same thing. The RIAA represents the industry - corporations - and, by extension, artists who are a part of that industry. 

In 1994, Prince declared himself dead, taking a symbol as his name because his record label, Warner Brothers, wouldn't let him release what he wanted. In essence, he said, he didn't own his name. The two parties went through five years of hostile (and sometimes hilarious) negotiations before Prince was finally freed from his contract and took back his given name. 

From 1999 until 2014, Prince acted as the biggest DIY artist on the planet. He recorded and produced his own albums. He paid for the compact discs to be manufactured and he hired record labels (EMI and then Universal) to distribute them. The labels didn't get a share of profits, they were paid for a service. 

And what was Steve Albini doing in 1994? He was producing a record by Bush for Interscope Records that debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts. At the time 53% of the Interscope's stock was owned by Atlantic Records. The following year it was bought out by MCA Inc. Today it is a part of the Universal Music Group. So who's industry here?

OK, so I'm stacking the deck a bit. Albini has by and large not only championed independent artists but worked in his own studio with punk/indie artists and labels. But what's his beef with Prince? The assless chaps were decades ago and "purple dwarf"? Potentially offensive but more than that, Prince had a better line anyway with "from the heart of Minnesota, here comes the purple Yoda."

"Did I offend the little guy?" Albini carried on. "Fuck it. His music is poison." What, Mr. Albini, does that have to do with anything. Prince should be a champion to DIY artists. He spent 15 years exploring how huge artists might survive without record labels. Sure, being a millionaire doesn't sound very punk, but faulting someone for their success is pretty petty. And unless all the contestants on American Idol have given up fantasies of dizzying wealth and popularity, living at the top of the heap without relying on record labels is a relevant part of the equation - and something I don't see Paul McCartney, Madonna or Taylor Swift risking to venture. I'm sure Albini doesn't like them either, but perhaps he should think again about what Prince has accomplished. Whether or not he likes the music, Prince is hardly corporate rock. And corporate rock still sucks. 

SST gif stolen from WFMU Station Manager Ken.



Considering Prince in the Middle of the Here (Ever Mindful of the Past)

Putting out two albums on the same day is a bold move. Guns N' Roses, Bruce Springsteen, Henry Threadgill and Tom Waits have all flexed that particular muscle. In 1981, Frank Zappa issued three volumes of the aptly titled Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar at the same time. And at the end of September, Prince joined the pack with s solo record and an album by his new band, 3rdEyeGirl.

It's on odd pair of records. Prince has done plenty of multiple releases in the past but never have they been as unbalanced as are Art Official Age and Plectrum Electrum. He has plotted multiple-disc sets that never came to pass (notably Crystal Ball, which ended up scattered across several releases). His sets too big for a single CD date back to 1982 and the double LP 1999, the initial digital issues of which had one song cut so it would fit on a single disc. Much of Crystal Ball ended up on the double LP and double CD Sign 'O' the Times. The 2002 live collection One Nite Alone came in three- and four-CD editions. 2009's Lotusflow3r and MPLSound came packaged with a third CD, Elixer, by protoge Bria Valente. Emancipation (1996) was a triple-CD set. An outtakes collection from 1998, which revived the name and title track "Crystal Ball" (one of his greatest songs) included as a fourth CD the largely acoustic album The Truth, which might well have been remembered as one of his best records had it been put out on its own. A fan club version of Crystal Ball also included a fifth disc of instrumental tracks called Kamasutra. Prince is no stranger to grand gestures.

He's also no stranger to complicating things for himself. From changing his name to a symbol to refusing interviews while waging a battle with his record label, the man has a way of always giving people something other than his music to talk about. And the thing to talk about now seems to be his stripped down rock band: no keys, no horns and he the only male. 3rdEyeGirl has been playing hell out of his old songs for a little while now and it makes sense that he wants them to have some currency. Unfortunately the set of songs he wrote for Plectrum Electrum, the 3rdEyeGirl album, doesn't stand up to the arrangements of old tumes he did for them when he was making them into his own cover band. There's a few solid cuts ("Wow," "Fixurlifeup," "Boy Trouble") but most of the first half sounds like he was writing for Led Zeppelin and most of the second half like TLC, which makes for an inconsistent listen to say the least.

To say there's a few good songs on Plectrum Electrum is almost a given. Every Prince record has at least a few good songs. But Art Official Age, the new album he recorded largely by his lonesome, made me remember what made great Prince records great. The man deals in concept in (public) life and in art. He seems at times to become so enamored with symbolism (right down to his symbol pseudonym) that the reasons – what actually is being symbolized – become less important than the artifice. That might not help his reputation but it doesn't exactly hurt his music. His best records have been comprised of fantastically inventive songs hung on a vaguely constructed storyline, generally an us-versus-them or good-versus-evil setting: the New Power Generation against the forces that want to keep them (that being us) down; the positivity of Lovesexy up against the dark force of the Spookyelectric; the Rainbow Children fighting whoever they (we) were fighting. The stories never quite make sense, but you can't criticize him for that unless you're also going to call Janelle Monae, George Clinton and Pete Townshend to task. If you're going to make a rock opera make sense, you're going to have to write as many words as Neil Peart does.

The skeletal story of Art Official Age concerns Prince waking up after 45 years in suspended animation to find himself in a utopian society. That hardly matters because the story barely figures in to the record (it's primarily delivered in a pair of spoken interludes) but there's something about it being there that gives the man some muscle. He may not be up to much where high concept albums are concerned, but feeling like he's up to something seems to make him dig in and work. Prince can lay down a groove in his sleep. When he's at his best, however (which, at the risk of damning him to past successes, would be the five years after Purple Rain), he's creating complex, multi-layered music. Today, on the heels of a half dozen solid r'n'b albums (each with a few great tracks), he's back to thinking big. Art Official Age is contemporary, complex, intelligent and excellent.

Which raises the question, why did he decide to outshine himself? It's doubtful, of course, that he sees it that way. Plectrum Electrum is a band album; Art Official Age is a solitary effort. Two sides of his coin. But another question arises as well. Why are there versions of the song "Funknroll" on both albums? Is it meant to demonstrate the two approaches? If so, Prince pretty clearly beats out his own band. But maybe he just likes the song. Back in the '80s he released the same version of "When 2 R in Love" (a sappy and masterfully produced ballad) at least three times. It's probably best not to ask questions that won't get answered. Four years after his last record and eight after his last great one, we get one good and another great. As he sings in his latest call-to-arms, "Finally again we meet at last / middle of the here, nevermind the past."

Prince's appearance on Saturday Night Live last weekend led me to finally putting down some thoughts about the records but I included clips from the Arsenio appearance in March primarily because it was a better performance but also because it appears as if Arsenio retained rights to post it. Between P and NBC it's unlikely any links to the SNL spot will stay live long, but at the moment it can be heard via the player above and seen here and here. The full episode can be watched legit here

UPDATE: I just saw that Rolling Stone posted the SNL performance which may be more likely to be permanent.