Posthumous albums: why labels should show more respect for musicians’ art

Anderson .Paak is so frustrated by the trend for reheating a late star's demos that he's had a tattoo about it. No wonder, says our columnist

Sometimes an artist passes away and, years later, you’re not quite sure if you dreamed it, such is the volume of music being released in their name.

Amy Winehouse’s ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures; was released after her death, and her father Mitch suggested recently that another posthumous album could be in the works. Do we want that? Would she have wanted that? Who knows. What we do know is: one artist has made his feelings on the subject crystal clear. Rapper and crooner Anderson .Paak this week revealed a tattoo that reads: “When I’m gone, please don’t release any posthumous albums or songs with my name attached. Those were just demos and never intended to be heard by the public.”

So, with regards to Mr. Paak, at least, that puts that debate to rest. If I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure why it warranted a tattoo, and he couldn’t have just popped it in a contract or something, but the whole thing has sparked a debate about posthumous releases.

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Since he talked to Instagram Stories about this thorny issue, other artists have joined in to reiterate the sentiment. Lana Del Rey reposted the image, saying in her ‘gram caption: “It’s in my will but it’s also on his tattoo.” And who can blame these artists? I’m a comedian, and while I’m not suggesting for one moment that I’m anywhere near in the same circles as international recording artist Lana Del Rey, I would be appalled if someone went through my notebooks after I’d died and even read my half-baked jokes about dating boys in bands, let alone said them out loud, let alone made them available for public consumption.

I can’t help but feel like I’m on the side of the artists in a world where artists have increasingly come to be seen as commodities, ready to be wheeled around for endless tours and special appearances thanks to streaming services ensuring they don’t make minimum wage for their work. Isn’t it even more exploitative to make money from things that they never meant to hear the light of day?

It’s easy to see why it happens: people love money, for one thing, and at the moment, mainstream culture sometimes feels like it’s having a crisis of confidence. A fear of the new. A panic at actually trying to get people to listen to or watch anything new. We’re living in a Groundhog Day of remakes, the golden years of, ‘But didn’t they just do a Spiderman like two years ago?’ So of course record companies are going to squeeze every living drop of cash out of a well-loved artist, especially if it’s via songs the fans have never heard before.

I understand the fans want to hear as much as possible from their favourite artists, but it also feels slightly ghoulish and exploitative of grief on a huge scale. If an artist is happy for their works to be released posthumously, then of course go for it. But if they’ve never said anything about it, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and ensure something is put in place to stop that happening. In the extremely complicated world of trying to understand who owns a song that someone has written (a predicament you’ll encounter when trying to get your head around someone as famous and successful as Taylor Swift having to re-record some of her songs in order to regain control over them), we could at least simplify who owns what in death by suggesting that unless that the artist opts in to posthumous releases, they’re out.

With more posthumous releases than ever in recent years, including ‘albums’ from rappers such as Juice WRLD, Pop Smoke and Lil Peep, it feels like the debate is coming to a head. This shouldn’t become commonplace if there’s a growing sentiment that it’s not what artists wanted. Please: view these musicians as people, have some compassion, and – without wishing to sound too preachy, respect their art a bit more than seeing dollar signs after they’ve gone.

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Anderson .Paak may have started something here; he obviously felt strongly enough about it to get it etched onto himself rather than just write it down. Of course we want to hear as much of our favourite artists as possible, even after they’re gone, but some things are better left a mystery. Some things weren’t made to be heard, and we should keep it that way.

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