Should We Release Posthumous Music?

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The deaths of our favorite entertainers are inevitable, unfortunately. In the digital age, especially with singers, there is often a mad rush to procure copies of an artist’s greatest works when they die. It seems strange to see this surge in popularity upon someone’s death. But it’s understandable – their passing sometimes makes the rest of us appreciate their artistic contributions. There will be no new art from that person. Or so we think.

There’s a gigantic list of singers who have had their music released posthumously. Whenever this happens, I can’t help but wonder, should we be doing this? It’s one thing if the artist intended to release the work, but if that’s not the case, are we going against the artist’s wishes? Should we release posthumous music from popular singers?

Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today / to get through this thing called life

One of the most famous examples I can think of from recent history is Prince. Here is an artist, whether you like his music or not, that was beloved by millions. He was notoriously protective of his work. So protective that he had a vault at his recording complex, Paisley Park, that reportedly contained 20,000 unheard songs. He once said, “I’ve vaulted so much stuff, going way back to the Eighties because I didn’t want people to hear it – it wasn’t ready. One day I’ll go back and finish it…” Unfortunately, that day never came, due to his untimely death in 2016.

In 2018, an entire album of music from his vault (“Piano and a Microphone 1983”) dropped. Though I’m sure die-hard Prince fans were grateful for the music, it almost feels like a violation when you consider the earlier quote from him. This is a guy who would repeatedly change the details of his childhood in an effort to maintain privacy. Releasing music that he purposefully hid away from people because he wasn’t ready for the world to hear it feels wrong. Gross, even. His most ardent fans probably love the music and think it’s fantastic, and perhaps it is, but most reports seem to indicate that he didn’t want it released. Though his estate has the legal right to do this, should they?

If there’s money to be made…

Prince is far from the only artist who has had posthumous music released. Other artists who fall in that category include Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, The Notorious B.I.G., Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Chris Cornell…and that is by no means an exhaustive list. Some of these people may have fully intended to release the music themselves had they lived. But if they didn’t, what then?

In several cases, it seems as though the music was released to the public as a blatant cash grab. If an artist’s beloved family gave their blessing to do it, that’s one thing. When it’s a record company or some other executive making the choice, the motive seems pretty obvious. In Prince’s case, he left no will or any instructions on how to handle his unreleased music, and reports are that he wasn’t close to his family. Yet his estate could release any amount of his music that it wants.

Last will and testament

Though music seems the most obvious and simple example, there are certainly artists in other mediums that have had their work made public after their deaths. The answer to “should we release posthumous music” seems pretty obvious to me. I suppose all of this is a lesson in making sure that our loved ones – or at least, our lawyers – understand what our wishes are for our estates upon our deaths. And maybe recognizing that we, as the public, are not entitled to every piece of an artist. It’s fine for certain things to stay private, even with public people.

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