Dear Prince: Thanks But No Thanks

07/27/2007 03:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thanks a lot, Prince.

I know you meant well by giving away three million copies of your new album, Planet Earth, with copies of the Daily Mail in England last week. You mean well when you give anyone who goes to your concerts a copy. Yet your giving people a free CD that, frankly, most people aren't going to care about even if you pay them to play it, is a dumb idea in the big scheme of things.

You see, Prince, you're reinforcing the notion that recorded music has no monetary value. And it's all well and good that you can say it, because you made your money in a time when the record business' economic model actually worked. And you can still charge people hefty bucks to see you based on those records that sold so well back then. So it's no big deal for you to give your music away. But now, thanks to the actions of people like you, an ever-growing number of people feel it's their God-given right to not have to pay anything for music anymore.

I like free stuff as much as anyone. But I was never violently opposed to the idea of, musician makes something that gives me pleasure, I give musician (and musician's record company) money. Of course, the major record labels screwed that up big-time with their unmitigated displays of greed and disregard to customers' needs at precisely the time that illegal downloading provided an alternative means of acquiring music. Still, should recorded music made in a studio become worthless just because a lot of us are still pissed off about paying $18.99 for a Britney Spears CD in 1999?

Some, like Bob Lefsetz, say yes. His theory is that all music should be given away. And he's far from alone. The mighty Universal Music conglomerate has been trying to figure out how to give away its entire catalog online while somehow getting paid for it by someone other than the people who actually want to listen to it. Universal's thinking is symptomatic of what all the majors have done -- stick their heads in the sand and refuse to solve the problems for as long as possible, and then, rather than trying to change the way they run the business, simply throw up their hands and give the store away.

But is the system broken or does the fault lie with the people behind the system? Paying a recording artist for the time, energy, creativity and money spent creating a CD or record or mp3 file -- nothing wrong with that. Add to the mix a record company that functions as a sort of gatekeeper of quality, not only preventing us from having to wade through countless pages to find new music, but making sure we're aware that the good stuff is out there. Sounds great, right? And that's how the business worked, to a great extent, in the late '60s and '70s. Even today, labels like the major-distributed Nonesuch come close to realizing the platonic ideal of what a record company ought to be.

But for the most part, starting in the '80s the system no longer worked that way. More record companies were bought by larger conglomerates, whose bean-counters knew nothing about music but knew a whole lot about the bottom line. By the end of the '90s, major record labels got paid but rarely passed that money on to the artists. The watchword of the day was "I don't hear a single." Nor did they exhibit any sort of quality control, choosing instead to blindly follow trends designed to exploit music buyers to the hilt -- how else to explain the marketing of singles artists like Britney or N'Sync while simultaneously eliminating singles and raising prices on full CDs?

But to say that music should be free because record companies are full of shortsighted, corrupt idiots is as ridiculous as saying that terrorism is good because the Bush administration is bungling Iraq so badly. What Prince is doing is good for Prince, bad for anyone who wants to be a musician but doesn't want to be a touring machine. If Brian Wilson or Phil Spector or countless other studio whizzes were coming up now, they'd have to either get a business degree to figure out how to get paid for their studio work, get a day job to pay the bills, or settle for a marginal, cult audience.

Record companies are there to figure out how to get music to as big an audience as possible. Prince's resorting to drastic means shows what a lousy job they're doing, but it doesn't mean they should stop doing the job. It only means they should be doing a better job, with more vision and experimentation. It's a model that can still work. The real problem is that nobody with the ability to make the necessary changes cares enough or has the guts to try to make it work.

And as for you, Prince, no matter how many CDs you give away, your day in the sun as a viable recording artist is over. Let's just hope there's still a way for the next Prince to be as widely heard as you were at your peak.