In the first hours after Prince’s death, it was quite a challenge to find his videos. Most I tried to watch were silent or had the “content has been removed” grief buzzkill. By dinnertime, I just went old-school and popped in a few CDs. 

We could learn a million lessons from Prince. But today, let’s focus on one: distributed content. 

Last December, Prince tweeted his opposition to the musician's battle to make money off their music.
Last December, Prince tweeted his opposition to the musician's battle to make money off their music.

Prince Tweeted this last December: “Corporations don’t make music. Musicians do.” 

I’d love to see The New York Times Tweet this: “Social media doesn’t make journalism. Newspapers do.”

After a very public battle with Warner Bros. in the 1990s — in which he performed with “SLAVE” on his cheek and changed his name to a symbol, going by the “Artist Formerly Known as Prince” — Prince decided he wasn’t going to play that game anymore, that he owned his music, and that was that. This USA Today article explains how he found his own distribution channels: inserted albums into the Daily Mail, gave them away with concert tickets, and offered them online at his NPG Music Club (now called the Prince Vault). 

During his contract battle with Warner Bros., Prince often performed with "SLAVE" written across his face.
During his contract battle with Warner Bros., Prince often performed with "SLAVE" written across his face.

His music is not on Apple Music, Spotify, or officially on any YouTube or similar channels. Last year, Prince pulled his music from every platform except Tidal. In 2010, he announced the Internet was dead. He clarified last year:

“What I meant was that the Internet was over for anyone who wants to get paid, and I was right about that,” he told The Guardian. “Tell me a musician who’s got rich off digital sales. Apple’s doing pretty good though, right?”

Sound familiar? 

Prince wanted to distribute his music. He just wanted to control it, get credit for it, and get paid for it. News media companies want to distribute their content. They just want to control it, get credit for it, and get paid for it: in revenue and — key! — in data. 

In December, Prince released his latests album on Jay Z-owned Tidal, pulling his music from Spotify and other platforms.
In December, Prince released his latests album on Jay Z-owned Tidal, pulling his music from Spotify and other platforms.

All of this is top of mind not only because of Prince’s untimely death. 

Yesterday, INMA released its most recent strategic report, “Evaluating Distributed Content in the News Media Ecosystem. I may be partial, having spent more time with this report than I did doing Prince Google searches — and that’s saying something — in the past week. But I think author Grzegorz Piechota (Harvard University Nieman Fellow, Polish media executive, and INMA Board member) has created a must-read report that is part how-to manual and part time capsule of what may be a game changer for the industry.

In researching the report, Piechota talked with Pawel Wujec of Poland’s Agora: “Our value chain is under assault,” Wujec told him. “Global tech companies strip us to mere content providers to platforms, and not destinations. … Some say the future is omni-channel, others notice it actually looks similar to homeless.” 

To which Piechota added: “These homeless publishers no longer have their own home pages, instead, publishing on others’ Web sites.”

Piechota also spoke with Sangreet Paul Choundary, founder and CEO of Platform Strategy Labs and co-author of the new book Platform Revolution: “Publishers need to stop thinking about platforms just as channels to distribute their content. I don’t believe at all in the strategy in which you give away some content via the social network and then try to monetise some more content on your Web site. I am afraid publishers need to fundamentally re-think their product and business model. 

“Think about platforms as fishing places where you can find large, engaged audiences and build a relationship with them by providing content. Then offer these users some other services off-platform. No publisher’s strategy will be complete without a clear plan to take users out of the platform and bring them to the publisher’s turf for monetisation.” 

INMA released “Evaluating Distributed Content in the News Media Ecosystem” on Thursday.
INMA released “Evaluating Distributed Content in the News Media Ecosystem” on Thursday.

Xavier Grangier, head of digital at Libération, had this to say to Piechota: “Of course, there is the risk of losing our audience and losing control over our content. At Libération, we strongly believe that our content needs to be read first. Making life easier (fast loading, easier sharing) may lead to better user experience and to convert[ing] new readers. 

“Reader acquisition is, at the moment, the most important for us, and a major key point for success. Obviously, if the eCPM is falling down and we don’t see any growth in traffic, we may reconsider our choice. The real question is, will we have that choice in the future? I am not sure about that.” 

Other voices within the INMA community piped in on the topic at our Big Data for Media Week earlier this month in New York: 

  • Vincent Wu, head of analytics at Huffington Post, said his boss, Ariana Huffington, has asked him why HuffPo is giving content over to third parties. Two reasons, he says: User experience and data (assuming media companies can figure out how to get it). Philosophically, Wu said, distributed content is like opening a door to another world. And it boils down to a competition for time: “People only have 24 hours a day,” Wu said. “If you can get more timeshare, you win.” 
  • Laura Evans, vice president of audience development and data science of Scripps Networks Interactive, explained that there is plenty of data the company is not getting. She specifically mentioned Snapchat and how publishers don’t get performance data on a daily basis. They get as much as they can on Facebook from the API and social publisher tools: “You’re going to get that at the content level, not at the user level,” she said. “That’s the hard part … that you don’t actually get to see it at the user level.” 
  • Haile Owusu, chief digital officer at Mashable, tries to stay positive: “I constantly think about how to contend with the magnitude of the change. I suppose I do have some optimism that in the confrontation there will be a clearer path to lifting up heavier weight journalism in view of this massive change of distribution.” 
  • Sachin Kamdar, CEO at Parse.ly, agreed: “I think content will be everywhere, and everybody is going to have to deal with that reality. But it gives us new opportunities for audience and revenue in the future, having five, six, seven different streams of revenue. The key equation is data.” 
  • Eve Burton, senior vice president/general counsel for Hearst, told the story of how news media companies lost the copyright battle with Google: “We gave away our copyrights in the name of traffic, and we have never really recovered. We never have been able to make much of a living digitally.” 
Data specialists discuss Big Data and its role in the distributed content debate during Big Data for Media Week in New York City.
Data specialists discuss Big Data and its role in the distributed content debate during Big Data for Media Week in New York City.

The data battle is the same. 

Burton told of a conversation she had with a top Apple executive as he tried to get Hearst to sign a distribution contract several years ago: “He really needed us,” Burton said. Hearst and Apple struck a two-year deal so that Hearst saw every piece of data Apple saw. Enter Facebook, Snapchat … and it all fell apart. Media companies now get zero data information from Apple.

“Our one experiment worked, but we were never able to unite ourselves as media companies to protect that data,” Burton said. “It’s a difficult conversation. You can’t be off the platforms. We fed that beast, building up these platforms that are worth billions of dollars. And we applaud the audiences they send our way. But it is a good long-term trade?” 

Doesn’t seem like it.

Not everyone is Prince. But the Princes of the global news media industry need to stand up for the rest. Because nobody makes a living being a slave.