The Ethical Dilemma of Releasing a Dead Musician’s Body of Work
It’s a very special kind of feeling when you hear about a musician you love coming out with a brand new album, but this feeling can be pretty jarring when that musician has been dead for 20 years. We experienced the latter feeling twice last week, with the surprise release of an unheard track from Ol’ Dirty Bastard, courtesy of the RZA, and the announcement of an entire album of unreleased material from Jeff Buckley.
As exciting as both of these buried treasures are (that ODB track, ‘Obey Me,’ is fire), the circumstances surrounding these releases are a reminder of the often-problematic issues that go into publication after death. It becomes a matter of moral principle; if an artist has no control over their work, should we still be consuming it without any regard for their wishes, or lack thereof?
It’s rare that we would ever register any moral dilemma given that most of these posthumous releases are handled by the estate of the deceased artist. In an ideal world, an artist’s estate would continually act in the best interests of an artist’s legacy for how they continued to be presented. Given the capitalist casino in which we live, this is often not the case. For example, the RZA-dropped track by Ol’ Dirty Bastard is not a gift out of love for fans and Wu-Tang camaraderie as one might have hoped. It was released as an incentive for purchasing an ODB Boombot REX speaker, a collaboration between RZA and sneaker company Boombotix, where each purchase garners a free download. In so many words, ‘Obey Me’ is not a love letter to die-hard fans; it’s a promotional stunt for a line of boom boxes.
Even in cases where an artist’s estate is controlled by close family, this doesn’t always guarantee good intentions. The new Jeff Buckley album is a collection of mostly covers that was overseen by his mother, Mary Guibert, working closely with the record label. In a press release, Sony Legacy’s president Adam Block stated how the upcoming collection of songs was made in an effort “to explore how we might celebrate the 20th anniversary of Jeff Buckley’s Grace…and an important addition to his recorded legacy.” An addition to his legacy it may be, but it is most certainly also a way for Buckley’s estate and the record label to profit from new memorabilia surrounding his only definitive work.
Despite the moral uncertainty of contributing to massive profit for an artist who would, obviously, see none of it, what is just as tricky of an issue is current artists profiting from the work of a deceased musician. Last year saw the release of Michael Jackson’s Xscape. Jackson had been dead for five years. Not only was the album commercially successful and used as a promotion for a mobile phone, it was executive produced and reworked by artists like Timbaland and Jerome ‘J-Roc’ Harmon, naturally working closely with the chairman of Epic Records. Thus Xscape is not only an album of Michael Jackson material released without his approval, but it’s one that didn’t even represent his artistic vision.
With these factors in mind, it becomes a lot easier to understand the actions of an estate holder like Courtney Love. Love, in complete control of all materials related to her late husband Kurt Cobain, has become infamously strict with how his legacy is interpreted in the years since his death. She has even blocked the surviving members of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, from using the band’s songs. While often met with volatile criticism from the die-hard Nirvana fans of the world, Love is one of the best examples of how to combat studio interference of an artist’s catalogue after their death.
It is exceedingly difficult to draw a definite conclusion in scenarios that are so incredibly subjective, but it’s safe to settle on one. “Lost discoveries” from deceased artists should be treated with far more caution. It’s exciting to hear fresh songs from legends of the industry, but it is more important than ever to examine just who is benefitting from “contributing to a legacy.”
Images The Guardian, Huffington Post