It seems to be a given that when an artist dies, ample amounts of undiscovered music will be found and consequently released to the public. From Jimi Hendrix to 2Pac, the posthumous release can range from music industry greed to essential listening. But is it right to release music once an artist has passed away and no longer has any creative control over their content?
Of course the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no, and without the posthumous release the world wouldn’t have several musical masterpieces such as ‘Life After Death’ by Notorious B.I.G, and ‘Closer’ by Joy Division. The wheels were already in motion for the release of these records and it is hard to suggest that these complete albums should have been pulled when the artist intended to share the music in the public domain anyway. Perhaps in these situations, the albums can be viewed as a monument to the artist.
The morality of the posthumous release becomes slightly murkier when several studio albums are released years after artists deaths. Jeff Buckley is still having albums released in 2016, ‘You and I’ represents Buckley’s third posthumous “studio” album which is made up of a collection of demos and live recordings. Buckley famously recorded numerous demos as a way of honing his song writing and sound, these demos were for his development and never meant for public consumption. At what point did these demos stop being Buckley’s intellectual property and instead became the record company’s commercial property? It seems as though there is a fine line between exploitation of an artist and honouring their legacy after death.
2Pac was tragically murdered at the age of 25, however in his short life he was incredibly prolific. With reportedly over 200 unreleased tracks at the time of his death, many consider his posthumous collection superior to the music released in his lifetime. 2002’s ‘Better Dayz’ received critical acclaim and has sold over 3million copies to date. This was the fourth of six 2Pac/Makaveli posthumous releases that contained original material throughout. Some conspiracy theorists have even speculated that Shakur is still alive and recording music. With the 2Pac legacy seemingly growing since his death, its easy to conclude that music world would have been missing out on some essential music had his records not been released after his death.
David Bowie decided not to release ‘The Gouster’ sometime between 1974-76, instead releasing ‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Young Americans’, and ‘Station to Station’ in the same period. While this lost album is undeniably good, it clearly isn’t in keeping with the themes and styles of the favoured records, and consequently sounds inferior. Bowie was undeniably an artist with a vision of what his music and image should be; should that image be challenged after his passing when the record was dismissed decades ago by the man himself? Before his death, this was never anybody’s choice but Bowie himself, what changes upon his passing that makes the record a matter of public interest?
In 2015, Universal Music released ‘Montage of Heck’ which was essentially Kurt Cobains home recordings and experiments, many from before the formation of Nirvana. Given how buried away these tapes were, and how self-conscious Cobain was about his music, it is clear to see that this was not something the seminal grunge artist would have wanted to release to the public. With the tracks in question being home recordings and not studio demo’s, it is hard to suggest that Universal aren’t exploiting a dead man for money. Some might argue that this kind of record is for the dedicated fans to explore the inner workings of the musicians they admire, but at what point should the fans be able to delve into the artist’s private possessions, surely even the deceased deserve respect.
Freddie Mercury told his manager days before his death “You can do what you want with my music, but don’t make me boring.” Its fair to say the Freddie never has become boring, even after his untimely death he caused controversy when his vocals appeared on a dance version of ‘Living On My Own’, a track from his solo album ‘Mr Bad Guy’. Perhaps if one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century didn’t care what happened to his music, then maybe we shouldn’t either. After all, art is always evolving and changing; why should music be any different?
The artist may have a vision for what their sound should be, carefully crafting and selecting the appropriate material to release, that they feel truly represents them. However the fan may want to hear anything and everything that the artist can produce, this creates the demand the record companies can exploit. The sad truth is that the record business exists purely to make money regardless of what the artist wants. As long as there is a demand to hear new material, or old demos, record companies will always be willing to dig through the archives in order to piece together something that can be packaged for consumption. However it is important to identify what the rights and wishes are for the deceased. If an artist deliberately hid away material for whatever reason, then does the public really have a right to demand its release, equally do the record companies have the right to distribute such music? Unfortunately the answer is never clear cut, no two minds think alike and what might be one artists wishes may not be representative of another’s. Perhaps in today’s world, the best that we can hope for is that these artists are treated with respect.
This article was written by Harrison Moore, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Zoe Anderson.