In the era of social media, the public mourning tradition for a beloved musician who passes away is well established. You find your favorite song on YouTube and tweet it; you stream the departed’s songs on Spotify all day long. If you run a news website, you start digging immediately in the artist’s video back catalog, looking for the perfect early song or live performance to encapsulate the performer’s career.
Prince, who died Thursday in Chanhassen, Minnesota, is different.* The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/genius had a famously fraught relationship with distributive technology: He embraced it in disseminating his music, as long as he maintained control over his own work. But he battled for decades with his record company, subverted traditional channels of distribution, and even last year removed his catalog from nearly every streaming service. And he was fervent in defending his copyright against exploitation, to a degree that seemed, at times, excessive, including issuing takedown notices to Vine users, threatening fan-site operators for running his photo, and filing a DMCA complaint against a mom who posted a video of her kids dancing to “Let’s Go Crazy.” (That case made it to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September.)
The practical result of all this is that, through Prince’s own efforts and expressed wishes, the standard methods of mourning a great artist are a little bit cockeyed this afternoon. Sure, everyone is digging up whatever remarkable videos they can—we’re on it—but nearly all his fantastic live performances, his surprising covers, his leaked material are nowhere to be found on my Twitter feed and Facebook news feed. And while I’d love nothing more than to stream Prince on Spotify right now, he’s not there.
The effect has been noticeable and unexpected. Instead of watching old concert vids or playing songs I know by heart—both of which I’ll have time for in the coming days, weeks, years—I’m reading my friends’ and acquaintances’ personal memories of Prince. Of listening to him, loving his videos, watching him play, losing their virginity to his music, even (in a few cases that fill me with awe and envy) meeting and interviewing him. I bet your social feed is looking the same way right now. There have been these personal stories for other deceased musicians and artists, of course. But with Prince I wonder if his doggedness in protecting his material online has inspired, unexpectedly, a fresh level of personal connection to his work upon his death. I bet he would enjoy knowing that.
He’d certainly be happy to remind you that if you want to listen to his music, you can always buy his songs. They’re on iTunes.
*Correction, April 21, 2016: This post originally misstated that Prince died in Minneapolis.