The controversial practice of releasing dead artists’ music

Ethan Henry, Contributing Writer

In 2021, there were numerous posthumous albums released, including Prince’s “Welcome 2 America,” Mac Miller’s “Faces” and Juice Wrld’s “Fighting Demons.” While posthumous albums are often well received by fan bases, they also raise questions about whether it’s OK to profit off of music that artists never cleared for release.

John Trammell, an employee at Oz Records, a local record store, said he thinks it matters who is making money from these recordings. Most times, the ones profiting aren’t those with the best intentions; following an artist’s death, those in their circle begin to fight over the rights to their recordings. 

One prominent example was the 15-year legal battle between family members over James Brown’s estate, which began with arguments concerning the singer’s final resting place.

“As soon as the estate starts getting divvied up, the vultures come out,” Trammell said. 

However, this is a more complicated issue for fans who have waited years to hear new music from these artists’ vaults. 

In the case of Prince, who passed away in 2016, fans waited more than five years for “Welcome 2 America.” As a Prince fan, Trammell was conflicted about the album because although he loves hearing the singer’s unreleased music, he doubts that Prince would have wanted the world to hear any of it.

“I don’t think he’d like other people deciding what’s going to be released,” Trammell said.

Prince’s perfectionism in this respect is well documented. An obsessive recording artist while in the studio, he was very particular about which projects he allowed the public to hear.

“He did so much music that he would record five albums and whittle it down to one or two,” Trammell said.

The quality of the music in question is also a key factor. To Trammell, many posthumous releases lack quality.

“There’s a fine line between pleasing the fans, pleasing sort of fans, and scraping the bottom of the barrel,” Trammell said. 

As far as popularity goes, the success of posthumous records varies wildly. Many are niche items that get limited-edition pressings and never make as much of an impact as artists’ former work.

However, Mac Miller’s “Faces” broke the record for most vinyl sales in the first week by any hip-hop or R&B artist, selling around 32,000 units. Regardless of ethical concerns, sales like these demonstrate the excessive demand for more music by recently deceased artists. Popular music is, and has always been, a business.

This discussion over ethical concerns has become even more poignant as the demand and technology for performing holograms of deceased artists become more apparent. Holographic recreations of Frank Zappa and Whitney Houston have already performed for live audiences, and more are sure to follow. 

While such concerts are controversial, in some cases, family members are heavily involved. In Zappa’s case, his son Ahmet has been one of the driving forces behind his holographic performances.

Joseph Sargent, an assistant professor of musicology in the UA music department, said this type of exploitation isn’t new; there’s “always been business concerns that affect music.” 

Sargent cited a 16th-century French composer from his research named Josquin des Prez, who was popular during his time but whose name was immediately exploited following his death in 1521.

“All these publishers come in, and they start taking his music, scratching off his name, and passing it off as other peoples’ music,” Sargent said. “Or they’d do the opposite, which is that they’d take other pieces, and because Josquin’s name is so famous, because it’s so big, they’ll just throw his name on there. Josquin is dead, he can’t do anything about this.”

Sargent said this problem has persisted throughout music history.

“These kinds of things happened with Beethoven. They happened with Bach. They happened with all sorts of composers, and it’s an enduring problem,” Sargent said.

In fact, Sargent even compared such phenomena to the exploitation of Tupac Shakur’s name following his murder in 1996. 

In an effort to restore historical composers’ original visions, the historical performance movement has arisen in recent years. Consisting of people who want to perform music in the way it was originally intended, this movement seeks to track down and sometimes replicate old instruments and tools to create a more historically accurate sound. 

Although the movement’s goal of complete accuracy is, in Sargent’s words, a “fool’s errand,” its idea of restoring a composer’s initial vision is fascinating.

In spite of the controversy, there are undoubtedly positive aspects of these releases. 

“I’m a fan of it as a way to continue someone’s legacy, to remember their contributions to the music industry,” said Quinn Correll, a Mac Miller fan and freshman majoring in computer science. 

“Faces,” a re-release of an old mixtape by Miller, decided to forgo the process of digging through old records in favor of making an old project more widely available. However, it doesn’t represent the artist Mac Miller became as his career progressed, which Correll was quick to call out. He saw “Faces” as a dip in quality from the rest of Miller’s incredible career, one that didn’t represent the artist well as a final statement.

Questions? Email the Culture desk at culture@cw.ua.edu.