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Prince Gives Album Away; Record Stores Are Upset

Never one to shy away from music controversy, Prince has entered into a marketing deal with England’s The Daily Mail under which his new album, Planet Earth, is being given away with the Mail’s Sunday edition for free. The issue itself costs $2.80. This move preempts the international launch date of July 16 and the U.S. date of July 24. According to the coverage, record stores were outraged and argued that Prince had turned his back on them after years of support. Prince’s response was “‘It’s direct marketing and I don’t have to be in the speculation business of the record industry which is going through a lot of tumultuous times right now.'” His spokesman stated that Prince wanted to deliver music directly to fans and that “‘Prince feels that charts are just music industry constructions and have little or no relevance to fans or even artists today.'” One major retailer apparently had opposed the move but then embraced by carrying the paper which is does not normally sell: “‘Like it or not, selling the newspaper is the only way to make the Prince album available to our customers,’ HMV said.” 

Although this event is an example of cutting out certain intermediaries, note that Prince’s album is still supposed to be sold in stores (The move did, however, prompt a great spin-infused stance as the Associated Press explained “Sony BMG U.K. said it decided it was ‘ridiculous’ to go ahead with its own sales launch in light of the newspaper deal, but stood by its star singer, adding it remained ‘delighted’ to be working with Prince.”) In short, the idea that the record charts are not capturing the way people consume and desire music may be sound. In addition, the business models for music may still be shifting. Nonetheless, the Mail paid for the promotional link so Prince is probably making some money on the deal and other artists are not likely to be able to thumb their noses at the industry at large so easily.

At this stage artists may pursue novel ways to have control over their works and how they are distributed. Smaller artists may be able to follow these models (as they arguably already are). There could, however, be a downside to this change: the locus of control will shift but the way in which control is exercised may not. Once artists have a taste of the same IP power that corporations have, they could easily behave the same way. Indeed, with more money flowing to this potential new group, one understanding of the incentives argument seems to indicate that they would behave the same as any other group with such interests.