Prince's Complicated Relationship With Technology

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The pop icon helped launch the initiative #YesWeCode.

Prince’s legacy as a litigious artist who fiercely protected his music from piracy doesn’t tell the whole story of his relationship with technology.

The musician, who died April 21 at the age of 57, was known in recent years for his dislike of the internet due in large part because it loosened his control over the distribution of his music. He regularly requested that fans not bring their phones into his concerts, sued 22 Facebook users for linking to unauthorized recordings, removed his music catalog from streaming services like Spotify, and in a 2010 interview with the Daily Mirror declared the internet "completely over."

But he wasn’t always so apprehensive about modern technology. In 1997 he sold the three-CD Crystal Ball set via internet preorders, a move well ahead of its time. 

In 2001, Prince launched a website called NPG Music Club that, for $7.77 a month, offered three new songs from his NPG label each month. The $100 annual membership also gave fans preferred seating at Prince concerts, among other perks. He shut down the service in July 2006, emailing members that "there is a feeling that NPGMC has gone as far as it can go."

One month earlier he accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Webby Awards, which recognizes digital media accomplishments. The Webby website says that his "leadership online has transformed the entertainment industry and reshaped the relationship between artist and fan."

Prince also encouraged his friend Van Jones to start Oakland nonprofit #YesWeCode as a way to introduce minorities to technology. The idea, Jones told CNN's Jake Tapper, grew out of the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin. As Jones recalled it, Prince told him: "A black kid wearing a hoodie might be seen as a thug. A white kid wearing a hoodie might be seen as a Silicon Valley genius. Let's teach the black kids how to be like Mark Zuckerberg." 

The reason Prince developed a distaste for the internet, it seems, was because he didn’t feel he was being properly compensated for releasing his music there. In that Mirror interview, he questioned why he should make his music available on iTunes or streaming services.  "They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it," he is quoted as saying. "The internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated."

He clarified those remarks five years later in an interview with The Guardian, explaining that he meant that “the internet was over for anyone who wants to get paid, and I was right about that. Tell me a musician who’s got rich off digital sales. Apple’s doing pretty good though, right?”

He softened on streaming last year with the launch of Jay Z’s Tidal, which has been positioned as an artist-friendly streaming service, and even released his most recent albums exclusively on the platform. He also seemed to embrace social media, frequently posting to Twitter and Instagram (his account was named Princestagram).

But no matter his relationship with the internet, the internet loved him. On Thursday, social media erupted at the news of his death. Twitter users posted 6 million tweets about the singer in the seven hours after news broke of his passing, and 25 million people on Facebook had 61 million interactions about the singer in the five hours after the news broke. Several of his songs and albums also were charting on iTunes in the days following his death.