Last week, Prince dared to do something unheard of. The funk star charged his fans £1.13 to download the video for his new song, “Screwdriver”.
Outraged fans took to railing on Twitter: “Way to alienate your core audience Mr. Purple Badness,” said one. “Tight arse – I’m sure he doesn’t need the money,” said another. But what difference does it make whether Prince is a million-selling recording artist or a struggling up-and-coming singer-songwriter? Every musician is entitled to be paid for their musical output – or is this something that we’ve forgotten in a world of YouTube and Spotify?
Bearing in mind that Prince had his fans’ pockets firmly in mind when he charged an affordable £31.21 for his O2 residency shows, and then gave away two albums to fans for free, he cannot be accused of ripping off his fans. Prince has, however, consistently resisted YouTube and other unauthorised postings of his music and performances – he once blocked live footage of himself covering Radiohead’s “Creep” at Coachella.
Asking fans to pay a mere £1.13 – less than the average price of a cup of coffee on the UK high street – for the privilege of downloading the video for his new song to watch any number of times, is a reasonable request. More importantly, by charging fans for a music video when people are used to streaming content for free on YouTube, Prince is forcing people to think about paying for music, making the point that it’s not a commodity to be taken for granted and helping to restore the value of music.
Similarly, when Radiohead asked fans to pay what they thought their album In Rainbows was worth in 2007, they questioned the way things are done and forced fans to consider the value of music. It was a template that posed little risk for the band since Radiohead could afford it should the experiment have backfired, so it’s interesting that an up-and-coming artist has braved the same thing with his debut album, when he had so much more at risk. Brighton-based singer-songwriter Charley Bickers put out Our Frail Hearts on 28 January, streaming the album from Charleybickers.bandcamp.com and letting those who hear it name their price on the site.
Initially, Bickers was going to give the album, a collection of intricate piano-and guitar-led songs featuring contributions from members of The Verve and Fyfe Dangerfield, away for free, but fans suggested he “did an In Rainbows” and invite contributions.
“I was going to give the whole thing away for free because I wanted to get as many people as I could to listen to my music,” he explains. “Without the weight of a huge marketing campaign behind me, the only way to do it is through word of mouth.”
In the fortnight since its release, he’s had some interesting results. The album has been streamed 6,000 times, but with just under 300 downloads, he can see that 20 per cent choose to invest, with contributions ranging from £1 to £15.
“I thought a higher percentage would choose to contribute, but, on the whole, when they do contribute, they contribute quite generously. I found that the older generation were more willing to pay.”
Still, making the album available as a pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth download forces every music fan who stops by his site to consider the value of music. Bickers agrees. “One of the great things about campaigns like this is that hopefully, even if just for a split second, it forces someone to consider the value that music and the arts bring to their life.” It’s a step in the right direction.