The problem with posthumous releases

Tanyel Gumushan /
Sep 12, 2017 / Music

Imagine your loved ones stumbling across your old diary nestled deep under your bed few weeks after your death, and publishing it to the world.

That’s kind of what releasing posthumous albums can be like, I feel. Of course, the question as to whether posthumous albums are right or wrong stretch far beyond a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, and cross the boundaries into intellectual property and ethic and morale. For each artist faces a different trial, with different evidence and a different jury.

There are three types of posthumous album, according to music critic, Ann Power. Up first we have the ‘warm to the touch’. This is the record released hot on the tail of the passing, usually because the wheels were in motion until death halted the tracks. They’re the ones that were pretty much finished and sat waiting to be heard. Then we have the ‘infinite vault’, nodding to the deceased activity of Tupac and Hendrix, where of course this music holds historical value and significance, but it’s never going to be as groundbreaking as the original. Finally, there’s the ‘Potpourri’. Which is essentially the thrown together material salvaging whatever was left behind on voice notes and cassette tapes.

Whichever category the album falls into, there is one motive shared; profit. Each gives fans something to gratify that hunger, or is it greed?, for more music. The posthumous album has become a pseudo event, a fabricated act of remembrance that gives people a push to put down their money as a sign of respect and tribute.

But really, it’s like we’re on Come Dine With Me, rummaging through knicker drawers to have something different to discuss over dinner.

Creative control is something that artists fight so relentlessly for, especially those artists who are mourned as icons and legends, for it’s what made them exactly that. Amy Winehouse’s songs documented her life and she poured all that she had into them. Her short career of just two albums confirms that. When the CEO of Universal Music UK, David Jones, destroyed 14 songs that Amy had written and demoed, he said that he was protecting her legacy to stop any later release once his successors could get their hands on them. Her posthumous album coincided with the award-winning documentary, AMY, but Lioness: Hidden Treasures was put together by her regular collaborators as opposed to a money grabbing label. Additionally, £1 from each sale went to the Amy Winehouse Foundation that works to prevent alcohol and drug misuse with young people thus keeping a memory alive.

Posthumous albums may, in that sense, allow us to understand the artists better. Giving a nosy peek at what they were working on behind closed doors and sharing what they may have done had they had the chance. In Michael Jackson’s case, we’ve heard much darker songs that showed another side to the king of pop. But, this in many ways is exploitation. As fans, are we entitled to know things about an artist that they do not wish to share? Do we have the right to paparazzi on the dead? This is where the line becomes blurred, as despite how much we may give to a music artist; our heroes and our role models, we do not have the right to take more than they wish to share. Yet, greedily if music were to be released by a lost icon, the natural impulse is to click play.

Post-death, the music passes hands and can be manipulated and warped to portray an image that profits. Usually, the first released song is a solemn track to pull the heart-strings and the purse-strings painting a picture of a tortured soul and a life lost too soon. When Ian Curtis hanged himself, Joy Division’s single, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, echoed the breakdown of his marriage amid his health problems and infidelity, becoming a point of cultural reference. The recent posthumous single from George Michael has stirred mixed emotions following his death last year. Calls from fans say that ‘Fantasy’ sounds unfinished, slating producer and close friend to George, Nile Rodgers, who responded by saying that the rework was his heart being “dragged through emotional ambiguity.” Defending the lost album track by saying the decision to work together on it had been made during the tragic December 2016, and was a fulfilment of wishes for both parties.

Whether released by record labels, itching to make a dollar on the dead and monetise whilst they can, or by the families who may crave the emotional and financial support, posthumous releases have found commonplace in the industry. Just last year, Elvis Presley broke all UK chart records to become the only solo artist to achieve 13 number one albums when the posthumous album topped the charts in October. The Wonder of You featured original recording augmented with new arrangements from the Philharmonic Orchestra, and was released coincidentally just in time for Christmas.

The holidays come with a tipple of nostalgia, and the posthumous album is the perfect gift for a once-superfan to rekindle their love for about a week following. Where radio play sees old classics battling with an X Factor wannabe for number one, there’s simply no better time. Michael Jackson’s new record, Scream, is released later this month. Featuring classics alongside the promise of a ‘new’ track – which is actually a mash up, it comes just weeks after the iconic “Thriller” music video premiered in 3D at Venice Film Festival. The MJ estate have made this an event, as seven short films for each song will be shown in six world cities to coincide. By clinging on to past triumphs and remixing old songs to make them radio-ready today, the memory is kept alive and the ‘legend’ name tag sticks, but there’s every risk of novelising a legacy for the sake of a few quick quid. Latest mash up, ‘Blood On The Dance Floor x Dangerous’ even screams, “leave me alone.”

There’s a romanticised notion of looking into the soul of the dead, which is why the posthumous album often performs so well. In an essence it allows an artist to speak beyond the grave, providing comfort to loved ones and those who loved them. But ultimately, they can be an invasion of privacy for somebody who can’t speak up. Perhaps it’s better to let the music live on as it did, as opposed to making a Frankenstein record.

Words by Tanyel Gumushan

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