As huge a presence as he is, Prince is not a musician who has ever loomed particularly large in my world. We’re only a product of our influences after all, and for whatever reason mine have not led me to explore Prince’s purple path in much detail. Prince worked his way into my attentions recently, however, when on July 10th, he released his latest album 20Ten as a free gift with a number of European newspapers, including the British Daily Mirror. The copy of the paper which brought the CD to me was one of 334,000 copies by which the publication’s sales soared that day. It’s not the first time Prince has used this method to distribute his music—he gave his 2007 record Planet Earth away with the papers, too—but am I the only one that feels that such a strategy cheapens the music and even Prince himself?
Whilst unsurprisingly the Mirror ranked 20Ten as Prince’s best since Sign O’ the Times (1987), elsewhere the reception has been lukewarm, and for my own part I find the record more than a little underwhelming. Slickly constructed it may be, but it seems to breeze by alarming quickly, never quite hitting home. Part of me suspects, though, that my perception of the album is affected by the way in which it was presented to me. Most of us are now used to possessing albums only as digital files, divorced of any physical vessel like a CD or a vinyl. A CD in a cardboard slipcase is innocuous enough for the hastily-pressed review copies I hear all the time, but as the first proper release of an album to the outside world, it seems an incredibly sad and forlorn item. Despite our knowing that a fuller physical release will follow, the rushed, low quality nature of this first presentation tempts us to assume—if only subconsciously and unfairly—that the music itself was created with just as little care and attention.
It intrigues me that I seem to value a simple slipcase even less than I value a completely non-physical download, and I wonder if others feel the same. It would be fascinating to know how many of the free copies of 20Ten were listened to often or slotted onto peoples’ CD shelves next to other Prince records, and how many were discarded without care after one listen or none at all. If the album had been given away as a download, perhaps using a code available with the newspaper, would it have accrued more attention, or less? What is more disposable, a free CD in a slipcase or digital files, and which is worth more to us, which demands greater value-for-use, physical space to store a CD or digital space to store the files?
Perhaps Paul McCartney’s strategy—through which he released his 2007 album Memory Almost Full with a newspaper a year after its original release—was a wiser one. At least that CD had the added value of being a free imitation of something which was already available and which cost money—20Ten lacks even that respectability, and instead has the cheapening, if probably largely false, air of a record created specifically to be given away for nothing with a low-brow tabloid. Whatever the answers to the wider questions about space, presentation and value, 20Ten is one piece of work the presentation of which invites a negative perception of the content itself.