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On The Topic of Posthumous Releases

One of my favorite songs of all time is Prince’s masterful power ballad, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” An absolute work of art, the legacy behind the track is ultimately a complicated one. Although he recorded the original version of the track, its initial release didn’t even see him on the track. It was given away to the band The Family, whose creation he had a direct hand in (his then-girlfriend was a central part of the group). The track was placed on their debut album, which would also be their only one as the group eventually split due to low sales of the same project.

In danger of falling into the annals of music history, Sinead O Connor’s manager eventually suggested that she cover the song for her second studio album, a decision that proved to be vital as it gave the song a new breadth of life, and would become the track that defined O’Connor’s career. Prince would also go on to perform the track at various live shows, but O’Connor’s iteration would be the only streamable version of the track until 2018 when Prince’s estate uploaded the long-lost, original studio demo to streaming services. It was the first time the song was able to be heard in its original form, unfettered and practically untouched. Although I believe this version of the track is its most superior form, it was released at a tumultuous time, as the singer left no will behind (his death was accidental, after all) leaving the directions as for what to do with previously unreleased materials open-ended, and in murky legal waters. Knowing this, though, how do I even begin to reconcile with the questionable ethics behind the release of one of the greatest songs of all time. 

Posthumous releases are already uneasy waters to navigate, with some artist’s estates using these releases as a means of keeping their artistry alive, and others (labels) using it as a means to recoup their investment in someone who has gone too soon. When artists and their respective estates are fully independent entities, you could argue that it (in and of itself) is a more ethical way to go about discerning and distributing whatever is left in their vault. When a label is involved, however, things can snowball even further into a complicated amalgamation of ethical and moral questions. 

Labels are always looking to recoup their investment into an artist. It is the sole focus of their business model, and the idea that all of their actions are modeled around (understandably so, money does make the world go round after all). Typically (though not always), labels own the music an artist creates, regardless of the state/stage of the creative process that it may be in. It is in their own best interest for any remaining materials to be packaged and released in some way shape or form. Whether it be as a song, songs, or as a feature (or features) on another artist’s track, it’s most likely going to get shopped around one way or another. 

On the reverse, however, when an artist’s estate is involved, or in complete control (no label involvement), the idea is that it is a more ethical process. Take, for example, Lil Peep’s Mother handling Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2. It’s worth noting that an “og version” was released last year as well, which sees the tape released in the same condition that Peep left it before his untimely passing. Though even with this on her jacket, there is still the often-criticized posthumous collaboration between XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, “Falling Down,” which many are left to wonder would have been made if both artists were still around. Another example can be seen in both of Pop Smoke’s posthumous studio albums, where the family maintained a hand in production (though more heavily on Faith than Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon, which 50 Cent famously took over executive production for) although both projects faced criticism for their choice of features and production. Ideally, their proximity to the late artist is supposed to mean that their insight on the process is more in line with the artist’s original vision, however, speculation can only take you so far into someone else’s creative state of being. Without the existence of a legitimate document that details their wishes, what are you to do? 

Amidst all of this though, we have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves the role we also play in this dilemma. As consumers, we are the ones who receive the end product and ultimately decide (though subjectively) how much weight these posthumous releases are worth after the fact. If people don’t listen to new Juice WRLD music post-mortem, where is the sense in continuing to plunder a finite amount of resources? On the other side of the coin, though, does enjoying and indulging in it make us as (supposedly) morally bankrupt as those looking to profit off of its release? I was never supposed to hear my favorite song of all time, so does having it on repeat make me a part of the problem? 

Capitalism incentivizes these very things, crossing moral bounds at the behest of the very capital gain that’s sought after. Where is the end goal, if any at all, when it comes to using the works of those who’ve passed? Would you listen to a new Michael Jackson album, full of previously unreleased tracks, if it dropped tomorrow with zero promotion? Even if there was marketing, what difference would that make? It would only deepen the gap needed to ensure it broke even, and in the streaming era who knows how much that would truly be. Physical media is disappearing before our very eyes, giving us even less control when it comes to actually owning something. Sure, you can purchase an album online, but who is to say the distributor won’t decide to pull it from services due to a contract dispute? The solution (if there is any) becomes less and less clear the further we dive into the depths of these morally murky waters. Money remains the motive, but when that attitude infects the process of creation, how much does it cheapen the integrity of the end result? Art is created with purpose, but if that purpose is based solely on the proprietary, what does that say about the state of art?

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