Prince was king

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Like most of the children of the 1980s, I grew up on the inspirational music and outrageous fashion of Prince Rogers Nelson, who died last week aged 57.

Prince was as famous for his gender-bending attire as his prolific creativity, producing hits off virtually every album – especially the Purple Rain single that was the title track of his film of the same name and won him the 1985 Oscar for best original song score. His songs were the soundtrack of my youth.

But Prince was more than a masterful musician who touched several generations with his abundance of musical genius, producing an album a year and leaving behind 49 collections of epoch-defining songs.

The little master from Minneapolis was also a tech visionary who began experimenting with digital music distribution in a way that few other artists did – and long before the era of streaming music allowed other musicians like Jay Z and Neil Young to start their own services, Tidal and Pono.

Only David Bowie, another gifted and coincidentally androgynous gender flirt, had such an understanding of technology and the impact it would have on music.

Prince was ground-breaking in more ways than just music. After Prince signed an enormous US$100m deal with Warner Bros in 1992, he discovered a year later the label owned his master recordings. He wrote the word “Slave” on his cheek during public appearances and changed his name to “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” and identified himself with a “love symbol” combining both the icons for male and female.

When his six-record deal with Warner expired, Prince formed his own label (NPG) and sold a five-CD set of songs, called Crystal Ball, via his website. For being the first major artist to release an album entirely online, this compilation of unreleased songs would later win him a Webby lifetime achievement award (in 2006).

He experimented with a range of new technologies as they appeared, including the then novel CD-ROM approach, which gave pre-internet users a modicum of interactivity. Prince Interactive, released in 1994, had a game on it that allowed users to explore his famous Paisley Park studios in his home – where he was found dead in a lift last week.

Long before the second coming of streaming music – led by Spotify and YouTube – he started a site called NPGMusicClub.com in 2001 that offered monthly subscriptions. He even had a SoundCloud-like approach to releasing snippets of his music.

He started giving his album away free to concert attendees – something that would only become widespread years later when music piracy forced musicians to find an alternative to the old business models; realising concert goers would pay for the experience of seeing an artist perform even if they could steal the music online.

Prince was a musical genius, who played an assortment of instruments. When his first album For You came out in 1978, he played and arranged everything himself. A year later, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall had 40 studio musicians and 15 arrangers and composers.

His career was filled with such impressive feats. In the year Purple Rain came out, 1984, he had the number one album, single and film in the United States.

Prince even saw the fading fortunes of online music: “The internet’s completely over,” he said in a 2010 interview. “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it. The internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated.”

Prince was a true revolutionary. He was not only a masterful one of a kind, he was a master of everything.

This column first appeared on Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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