Posthumous Albums: About the Music or Money?

By on June 7, 2014
Photo Credit: Zoran Veselinovic via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Zoran Veselinovic via Wikimedia Commons

After seeing headlines for Michael Jackson’s new album Xscape and his recent “appearance” at the Billboard Music Awards, I began to think, “Should posthumous albums even be made?” and “What are the benefits and drawbacks to posthumous albums?” Reasonable questions, I believe.

When a record is created after an artist’s death, our ears are again graced by the voice(s) that we once cherished and enjoyed, except now it’s new music. The new music isn’t really new, though, but previously recorded material that had never been released by the artist, band or record label. Nonetheless, it’s fulfilling to hear new lyrics from a favorite artist that is no longer on Earth. It’s like a birthday gift sent from the music gods – that is, if the posthumous album being made is well done.

But should an album be made after an artist has died?

I am, admittedly, against the idea of posthumous albums – with a few exceptions – because most posthumous albums are nothing more than money-grabs by record labels, or whatever business or family member owns the right to the artist’s image (which is another issue for another article). However, there are several benefits to creating and releasing posthumous albums.

Photo Credit:Helge Øverås [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit:Helge Øverås [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Benefits of Posthumous Albums

As I mentioned before, fans receive music from phenomenal artists that are no longer with us through these posthumous albums, music that could potentially become part of our culture.

There have been successful and good posthumous albums released over the course of time (definition of “successful” and “good” may vary by reader) and, though some may have been money-grabs, most of those albums sat well with their respective fanbases. Several artists have been nominated and received awards for their posthumous works, and several have also been inducted into their respective genres’ hall of fame – if they were already not inducted in it – because of their posthumous works. It is worth noting that many of the artists that were a part of the albums below would have likely been inducted into their respective hall of fame with or without a posthumous album.

This is a short-list of “good” posthumous albums:

  • Johnny Cash, American V and VI
  • Eva Cassidy, Simply Eva
  • Tupac Shakur, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory
  • Queen, Made In Heaven
  • Notorious BIG, Life After Death
  • Marvin Gaye, Dream of a Lifetime
  • The Carpenters, Voice of the Heart
  • Bob Marley, Confrontation
  • Frank Zappa, Joe’s Ménage

A final point in support of posthumous albums is that reviving a long gone voice can break up the monotonous one-hit-wonders streaming through radios (non-satellite radio) and websites. How often did you see and hear “Gangnam Style” or “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” on your Twitter timeline, in your email inbox, on your car radio or on your favorite website? TOO OFTEN! Posthumous albums drum up curiosity from a younger generation, which furthers the legacy of the artist and rejuvenates interest in that artist.

Photo credit, Joel Baldwin for LOOK magazine, 1969

Photo credit: Joel Baldwin for LOOK magazine, 1969

Drawbacks of Posthumous Albums

It goes without saying that record labels typically are the sole monetary benefactors of posthumous albums. The labels don’t have to worry about shelling out big bucks for the artist’s share of the profits; they get to keep all the profits! Huzzah!

More times than not, the still-living artist, or artist’s family, claim that they do not want these albums to be made. Reasons can range from tarnishing the artist’s image, claiming the labels are only out to make money or, in the case of Michael Jackson’s first posthumous album, he “would never have wanted his unfinished material to be released.” That quote is from Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, in regards to Michael, which is still laden with controversy. Even though Jackson’s unfinished material created enjoyable music (for some), it should have come down to his wishes – if stated in a will or other documents – or his family’s wishes to release the unfinished material.

In a similar vein, artists (like Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch (MCA)) have put in their wills that their music and image cannot be used to sell products and/or cannot be used without familial consent. So you will not see holograms of certain dead artists, which is entirely fantastic to read since holograms are wholly unnecessary in the music world.

This is a big one: there would be no live tour. Live shows are the best thing about music right now (I mean, they always have been, but artists and bands are putting much more into live shows than in the past) and how lame would it be to get excited over a “new” album, only to realize you will never get to see it live? I would be absolutely devastated to learn I couldn’t see a great artist/band live that I recently became interested in, and I am sure others feel the same.

By Tamla (Billboard, page 1, 27 April 1974) via Wikimedia Commons

By Tamla (Billboard, page 1, 27 April 1974) via Wikimedia Commons

So what do we do with unfinished material?

Until humans are taken over by aliens or have destroyed themselves, there will always be unfinished material or “secret” unreleased tracks by musicians. It could be Freddie Mercury experimenting with a country twang (that makes me nauseous thinking about it) or in fifty years someone could discover an unbelievable song from Lady Gaga that was left in her personal collection, only to be heard by her and her close friends. Unreleased music by astonishing musicians will always be “found” in bizarre places, but should that music be released? What should we do with unfinished tracks if we do not release them? Should the music literally be buried with the musician?

There are two choices. Living family members should be given the unfinished work and it should ultimately be up to them whether or not to release the music to the world – unless otherwise stated in a will. In this case, the family could just sell the rights to a record label or another, but it would still be their decision.

The second choice is dependent on all current major labels and artists coming to terms on an industry wide agreement – a feat that is likely more difficult than jumping the Grand Canyon with a dirt-bike. The agreement would allow posthumous albums to still be made – unless the artist strictly specifies in their will to be against such action, like Yauch with advertising – but all profits made from the posthumous albums would be donated to charity. The choice of charity would be up to the record label, or a joint charity could be assembled by all the labels, but the charity must be music related – preferably music education for underprivileged areas.

By forcing the labels to donate the profits to charity, we’d only be receiving albums that would truly be about the music, not about money-grabs. We’d get to hear fantastic “new” music from deceased artists and the profits would be donated to charity. It’d be a gigantic win for society.

In the end, unless posthumous albums become unprofitable in the near future, I expect countless “unreleased” tracks from dead artists to spill through speakers consistently. In the case of Michael Jackson’s recent album, the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney summed it up best by saying Jackson’s album was merely made because “L.A. Reid needed a new boat.”

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