Prince Pre-Dates iTunes With ‘Cybersingle': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
Prince’s “Cybersingle” is perhaps the most self-aware piece of pop music since Public Image Ltd's “(This Is Not a) Love Song." Right off the bat, Prince sings, “I am the cybersingle / That is me / Come and get my download / 2 be free or not 2 be free That is the question, see.”
According to PrinceVault, free is exactly what the song was intended to be. Prince first offered it as a free download on his NPGOnlineLTD.com on July 14, 2000. Later in the year, it was given away again, this time on Real.com.
At the time, Prince's efforts to sell his music online, such as the various versions of Crystal Ball, were about selling physical compact discs directly to fans without having to need a label. But the commercial potential of digital music files was unknown. The world was still half a year away from the Jan. 9, 2001 launch of iTunes. However, Napster was at its height of popularity as a peer-to-peer file sharing service. By allowing strangers to freely trade his albums, to say nothing of distributing bootlegs, a major source of Prince's revenue was being threatened. "Cybersingle" wasn't going to put Napster out of business, but it was nonetheless a fairly new concept for an artist to allow a new song to be downloaded for free.
Prince had already embraced the computer, both as a way to streamline the recording process, and as a way of communicating and collaborating (as documented in “My Computer” with Kate Bush). In the book, Prince: The Man and His Music, Matt Thorne writes, “It seemed inevitable, then, that as part of (Prince’s) move away from releasing albums in a conventional manner, he would look to technology as a way of reaching a new audience.”
Five days after iTunes launched, Prince started the NPG Music Club, a subscription service through which Prince would offer individual songs, albums, videos and concerts. Prince shut down the site in July 2006.
The Prince Online Museum has kept elements of Prince’s classic websites available for fans to still explore. In one commentary on the site, the site’s Operator (assumed to be Prince) says, “"The creator of ANY intellectual property has the right 2 xploit it any way they c fit, without the profits going 2 a 3rd party."
Prince’s online efforts continued right up through his death, with an exclusive deal with Tidal to distribute lossless versions of his NPG Music Club-era albums. Napster, in the meantime, folded as a peer-to-peer file-sharing service in July 2001 even though BitTorrent rose in its place. iTunes continues to sell downloads while the whole industry grapples with how to properly monetize streaming and compensate artists. Prince foresaw it all in “Cybersingle” when he sang, “As the media tightens its grip on U / And the beast continues 2 split in 2.”