Is releasing music after death ethical?

Well, 2021 is off to a great start!

Dr Dre is in hospital, Kimye is over, Capitol building is being raided. But most relevant is the aptly timed news of legendary rapper MF DOOM’s death on 31 DEC. His death was delayed 2 months for reasons that we can only assume are for grievance and privacy.

We grieved the loss of a legendary Hip Hop artist with such a unique and, almost perfect discography, which is exactly what I’m worried about.

It’s the same old tale of the great artist who dies with their dream catalogue of releases that they dedicated their whole careers to perfecting, only for it to be clouded with ‘posthumous’ releases that serve as mere payment channels for their record label.

But there’s confusion as to who’s the plaintiff, and who’s the villain (Get it) in this story. We’re here to discuss both sides.

Record sales after an artist’s death

Let’s start with some good old statistics.

An interesting analysis of how long term record sales are affected by the news of an artist’s death was conducted by Stan Renard and Richard T. Gretz. (Read full article here)

The article also states that “Prince’s album sales surged by 16,000% following his death placing in seven of the ten top slots in the charts, while Tom Petty’s song sales surged nearly 6,800% when he died”

Even after 1000 days of an artist’s death, record sales barely even come close to how they were when the artist was alive. But there’s no surprise, right? When an artist you love passes away, all you want to listen to is that artist for the next 1000 days, on top of that is the constant media coverage and posthumous releases.

However, In the case of Avicii, the young DJ mentioned his deteriorating mental health to his managerial team on countless occasions, and yet they still wanted to squeeze that extra bit of cash out of him. Fast forward to now, over 2 million Avicii records have been sold in the UK since his death, proving that showing a lack of care for the artist’s health can sometimes work in the label’s favour.

There’s no doubt that the label mourned over his death, but the least they could do is respect the artist’s catalogue.

“Album sales increased on average by 54.1% after death”

Are Posthumous releases ethical?

When I say ‘posthumous’ I am of course referring to records released after the artists’ deaths. In the past couple of years, we’re nowhere near shy of plain examples of musical icons sadly passing away, but still releasing music.

Pop Smoke, for example, sweeped up an estimated 225 million streams and 35,000–45,000 traditional album sales for his posthumous album ‘Shoot for the stars, aim for the moon’.

It’s worth noting that the Brooklyn rapper was well on his way to stardom, dead or alive. The album is a pioneering work for US Drill, and was also in the works before his death. I’m sure he would’ve wanted the album to release regardless of whether he was alive to see it or not.

Which eases my mind, however one darker example is when David Joseph, CEO of Universal Music UK, said that he’d destroyed Amy Winehouse’s sketchy demos for her third album so that none of his successors could ‘Frankenstein’ a record out of them. She’d been working on the album for the past couple of years and was scheduled for release in 2011, and yet she was still uneasy about releasing a posthumous album.

The album was still pieced together and was released as Lioness: Hidden treasures. Which is slightly devastating as Amy showed her reluctance to release the album, so much that the tapes were destroyed. And yet, out of total disrespect and greed, the label released it anyway.

I feel like any fan of Amy would’ve much preferred to respect the decisions of the now deceased singer over an artificial, 12 track album pieced together by a record label.

Why are posthumous releases so popular

So far, I feel like I’ve given off the impression that record labels are only taking advantage of their deceased artist solely for the money, which is far from the case. There’s no doubt that their team mourned over their death, and some may have struggled to make the decision of releasing some posthumous material.

To gather more information about this dilemma, well respected music writer, Stephen Thompson was asked if the posthumous release of George Michael’s “This Is How (We Want You To Get High) was for the money or the fans, he answered with:

Well, as always, it’s both. And I think a lot of times, labels and estates, you know, face a little bit of a dilemma. You know, you don’t necessarily want to be accused of just putting something out for the money. And at the same time, you don’t want to bury an artist’s legacy. If you have these recordings in your vault, it makes sense that you would want to share them just for archival purposes if nothing else.

He also mentions Prince and how delicately he treated his own discography. He famously kept a secretive vault of unreleased music. Of course, after his death the vault was politely raided and blasted through loudspeakers across the world, but there is an argument for this.

Die hard Prince fans have stated that they are “really glad to have an opportunity to hear that song even though Prince himself never put it out in his lifetime.” And to be fair, as critical as Prince was, some of his posthumous releases are quite amazing.

An interesting and rather empathetic reason for labels to do exactly this is to pay tribute. Like I said before, the company can have a lot of respect for the deceased artist, and are in a position to help their fan base through the grief.

Mac Miller’s Circles is an example of this. The album was in the works before his death in 2018, and so with his death still fairly fresh and quite difficult to accept, the album serves as a healthy tribute and a point of insight into Mac’s thought process at the time of his death.

In these instances the profits are usually sent for a good cause.

Summary

Is it ethical to release music after an artist’s death? Personally, it depends on whether the artist gave their consent.

If there’s no evidence of reluctance for the material to be released, then I see no problem at all, so long as the listener is aware of when in the artist’s discography the releases turn posthumous, I think it’s fine. This way, the artist still keeps their reputation as a perfectionist, while the record label prepares their production line of unreleased songs for the decades to come.

However, questions should be asked if an artist showed any sign of reluctance to release anything after their death, an example being Amy Winehouse. These instances is the reason for why many young artists today would rather steer away from record labels.

But either way, whether the artist gave their consent or not, there will always be a sense of emptiness when listening to any form of posthumous album…

Thank you for reading!!

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