I understand you're upset about the news that all six of your recent shows at the Dakota were recorded and are being pressed for sale as bootlegs as I type this. Believe me, I sympathize. I don't like bootleggers any more than you do.
You may find that a little hard to believe, considering I only recently posted a review of a bootleg DVD, have professed to owning over 600 unreleased tracks, and Jehovah only knows how many concerts, but hear me out: I despise bootleggers. Stick with me for a bit and I'll explain, but first let's go back in time to 1988.
One rainy day my older brother picked me up from school in his ratty old Plymouth Horizon. As I got in, he pointed out a nondescript brown paper bag wedged in between the seat and the center console and told me to open it. That's when I saw it: an all-black vinyl album sleeve.
My heart skipped a beat. We'd read about The Black Album in nearly every major music publication at the time. Rolling Stone Magazine even reviewed it after it was shelved in favor of Lovesexy. Somehow, my brother had tracked down a copy of the near-legendary record!
"Where did you get this?!" I asked.
"This little store around the corner from our house," he replied nonchalantly. "I'm going back to get me another one, too."
With that we drove to DJ Records (don't worry, they've long since closed up shop) and purchased a copy of Charade - a collection of Parade-era outtakes - and, thus, our introduction to the world of bootlegs was complete.
Over the years, we scoured independent record stores and collector's shows for every boot we could find. With the advent of internet services like Prodigy and America Online, we met other traders and formed bonds that last to this very day. We amassed quite a collection of material, and we spent a pretty penny doing so.
Which brings me to my point (hopefully you've stuck with me so far...): if you want to stop bootlegging, all you have to do is release the material yourself.
Remember in 1994 when you wanted to release more material than Warner Bros. was willing to allow? You began painting "slave" on your face, and talking up a project known as The Gold Experience, claiming it would never be released. Of course, it eventually saw release and remains one of your finest works, but by the time it came out, you were bored with it and had moved onto something else. You began working on Emancipation, a 3CD magnum opus to be released when your contract with Warners was over, and promised fans more new music than they could handle.
For a while, it seemed like a dream come true. You started a phone line, and opened your vaults for the 3CD Crystal Ball set, but it was the NPG Music Club that truly broke new ground. One of the first of its kind, NPGMC was a direct link between the fans and the artist - a way to release as much material as you pleased outside of the archaic industry system - and all the profit went directly into your coffers. It was a forward-thinking, and surprisingly well-run service (the same could not be said of 1-800-NEW-FUNK). Then, like everything else, you got bored with it and moved onto something else.
Despite the ever-changing landscape of technology, the NPG Music Club is still a valid idea today. iTunes has become the world's largest music store. Amazon has their own mp3 service, while smaller sites such as Beatport focus on niche markets like electronic music. It's easy and convenient for the end user to find and purchase what they want, but the stores still take a percentage of the profits for themselves.
The 1998 Crystal Ball set was a good idea in theory, but in practice it ended up falling short of expectations. Some questionable song selections aside (a remix of "Love Sign" and an edit of the already-released "Good Love"?), one of the biggest problems is that many of the classic songs that had been circulating on bootlegs amongst fans for decades were clearly altered. "Sexual Suicide", "Crucial", "Calhoun Square", "Movie Star" - all featured small changes ranging from overdubs to inexplicable cuts and edits that not only bothered fans, they failed in their goal of making bootlegs obsolete.
In order to fully understand, you'll need to see it from our perspective - the fans. Why do we buy and download bootlegs? Ultimately, because we love the music. We can't get enough. There is something about your music that speaks to us, and we want every note we can get our greedy little hands on. What we don't love is the system.
Consider: in the 80s and 90s, the going rate for a single CD bootleg was $25, and 2CD sets were at least double that. Not a penny of that money went to you, the artist, but we were still willing to pay it to get often inferior quality material. Don't you think the same fans would happily pay you for soundboard recordings of live shows, instead of something recorded from the back of the arena? Wouldn't we rather have perfect quality versions of our favorite unreleased tracks? I think the answer is obvious.
But there are some caveats. In order to eliminate the need, and thus the market, for bootlegs, you need to release songs as they are. I know your religious beliefs may not jive with some of the lyrics in your earlier works, but for the sake of history, you can't change them. Doing so would only make the bootleg versions that much more necessary. It's your prerogative if you don't want to swear in concert anymore, but when it comes to your vast back catalog, leave it as it was when you recorded it.
Furthermore, there are numerous services that press made-to-order live performance CDs. Pearl Jam used to have a big problem with bootleggers, until they started releasing every show. Peter Gabriel often releases unedited live recordings, warts, miscues and all. Even if you made shows available through a digital distribution service, such as your new 20pr1nc3.com website, fans will pay for them - especially if given the choice between mp3s and a lossless audio format, like .flac. But again, leave them as-is. No overdubs. No edits. No "correcting mistakes." Those are all part of the live experience, for better or worse, and that's what fans want. When we listen to a live recording, we want to feel like we are there in the crowd, grooving with everybody else. Altering live recordings only gives the bootleggers alternate material to release.
If you've read this far, I'm sure you've grasped my point. If you want to stop the Dakota shows from being released, or at least make them useless and obsolete, all you have to do is release them yourself. Fans buy bootlegs only out of necessity, and I think I can safely speak for each and every one of us when I say we'd much rather get perfect quality releases directly from you than pay exorbitant prices for audience recordings and stolen material.
Perhaps you're worried about piracy, but you need to accept that there are just some problems you simply cannot control. There has always been music piracy, and there will always be music piracy. You cannot possibly hope to curtail it, much less stop it altogether, so it's a waste of time, money, and energy to try. What you can do, however, is eliminate the need for bootlegs in one swift, simple stroke. Bring back the NPG Music Club, or the 3rd Eye Club, or whatever you want to call it, and release unedited soundboard recordings of the Dakota shows. Open your vaults and let fans buy previously unreleased material as it should be heard. Even if there are ten different versions of the same song, we will buy them all (and why not? We did on overpriced bootlegs).
Take it from a young(er) person who is firmly entrenched in internet culture: this is how you stop bootleggers. What need would there be for anyone to buy the upcoming Eye Records Dakota set if they could spend less money to get better quality versions direct from you? It's just pure logic and basic economics.
It may be a costly endeavor, but I'm sure your pockets are deep enough. If you want to break the system, you're going to have to spend a little cash to ensure solid hosting and hire a good web designer, but it will be worth it in the end when fans eagerly snatch up each new release. Just think of it: decades of material at our finger tips! The very thought of it makes me want to apply for some new credit cards!
Hopefully you've stuck with me through this, and if you have I thank you, not only for reading, but for three decades of incredible music and live performances. More importantly, I hope you'll take my words to heart.
Matt A., Media (and especially Prince) Junkie