As a new Avicii album drops, we explore the ethics of posthumous releases
As Avicii's 'Tim' and Prince's 'Originals' are released, it is time to question how ethical it is for estates to issue posthumous collections of musicians' works
When an artist dies, what should happen to the art they leave behind? Should the unfinished ideas, rejected scraps and half-realised works-in-progress be left unfinished? It’s an unresolved debate that veers back into focus this weekend, as two of the world’s most famous musicians unveil fresh albums from beyond the grave.
Thursday marked the release of Tim, the first posthumous collection from Avicii (real name Tim Bergling), the EDM superstar who died in Oman last year. On Friday, there will be a major drop from Prince as his unreleased archives go live as a record entitled Originals. Both works will be pored over by critics and lapped up by fans, shedding fresh light on the creative process and spawning theories about the artists’ intent and state of mind.
Hopefully, these projects might offer everyday listeners the genuine pleasure that only new music can bring. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is almost certainly material the artists never wanted to be heard in the first place – and the bottom line is, it’s always someone else who stands to benefit from its release.
Just a sketch
Originals collects the “original” sketch-like demos Prince prepared of songs written for other artists, many of which became hits, such as The Bangles’ Manic Monday, Shelia E’s The Glamorous Life and the original version of Nothing Compares 2 U, a 1990 smash for Sinead O’Connor.
Also on the track list are unlikely surprises such as You’re My Love, written for country singer Kenny Rogers. The set may have the blessing of co-compiler Jay Z, but there’s zero chance a notorious perfectionist such as Prince would have given the go-ahead for the release of these rough guide tapes in his lifetime. Yet this appears to be of little concern to his estate, which has already raided the singer’s archive for last year’s Piano & a Microphone – an intimate one-take, one-man jam recorded in 1983 – and will later this year unfold the pages of Prince’s unfinished memoir The Beautiful Ones, to be published alongside unseen photos and private notes by the artist.
It’s sure to be a bestseller, but it’s equally likely that readers would raise objections were their own diaries, hard drives and shoe boxes ransacked and shared with the world. So how is it any different, ethically speaking, for famous people to have their private lives exposed in such a way? Does possessing a public profile mean the laws of good taste and common decency for the dead are void?
In full flight
If we look back through history, it appears that is the case, from Beethoven’s love letters to Van Gogh’s paintings – of which only one was sold in his lifetime. A barely published Franz Kafka, now arguably the 20th century’s most influential writer, famously said all his novels should be burnt before his death. But any scholar will tell you the world of literature is monumentally richer with The Trial in it.
Hit play on posthumous anthems such as Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay or John Lennon’s Woman, and it’s easy to make the same case. Parting gifts such as Janis Joplin’s Pearl and Gram Parson’s Grievous Angel surely belong in this world, as do the twin hip-hop classics of Tupac Shakur’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory and The Notorious B I G’s Life After Death.
But these were all largely finished recordings that almost certainly would have appeared in their existing form had their creators’ lives not been cut short; had Redding not boarded that plane, Joplin and Parsons not overdosed and Lennon, Tupac and Biggie not all been shot.
It is when the surviving work in question was deliberately shelved by its creator or left uncompleted, that this argument shatters. It’s notable that The Dock of the Bay was the first of five posthumous studio LPs from Redding, while six more Tupac LPs followed Killuminati – before the rapper was ridiculously resurrected as a hologram at Coachella in 2012.
It’s absurd not to imagine that further filling the pockets of family members and record-company moguls is a motivation behind digging ever deeper into the vaults of dead artists. Popular music’s most mismanaged posthumous catalogue must belong to Jimi Hendrix, who released only three studio albums during his lifetime. But as his surviving tapes were passed between benefactors, the guitarist would be the subject of more than a dozen posthumous studio releases – as well as more than 50 authorised live albums and “official bootlegs”, and counting. Such staggering statistics might only be rivalled in ridicule by Jeff Buckley, who released only one 10-track album in his lifetime – 1994’s peerless Grace – but has been honoured with 10 posthumous collections of inevitably declining artistic value.
While record companies are compelled to release substandard material for financial gain, they are enabled by voyeuristic fans only too willing to tolerate increasingly substandard products. A premature death creates riveting intrigue, and there is a flavour of forbidden fruit in the unsanctioned recordings left behind – in Buckley’s scratchy demos, collected on Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, and the depression-wracked final tapes of Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill.
While not a patch on her classic recordings, the respectful Lioness: Hidden Treasures sheds light on Amy Winehouse’s creative process. The noises of Kurt Cobain’s homemade tapes released as Montage of Heck felt like an invasion too far – but the mythology surrounding the artist made the release sadly inevitable.
Sometimes this final equation needs to be balanced further. When the leftover scraps are too unpolished or too unfinished, the only answer is to massage them until they come up to scratch – the most ethically disquieting trick of all.
Avicii’s posthumous effort falls into this camp. Based on half-finished experiments in psychedelia, Arabian music and Caribbean sounds, the record has been midwifed to marketable completion by a team of sympathetic co-producers. The DJ’s family may be acting in good faith, with all profits from the 38-minute set going towards the newly created Tim Bergling Foundation to help raise awareness of mental health issues, but aesthetically they follow the dubious precedent set by the distinctly more predatory estate of Michael Jackson, which employed a legion of producers to assemble shelved demos into two posthumous albums, Michael and Xscape.
The latter was marshalled by Timbaland, whose anointed mission to “contemporise” the King of Pop led to raw Jackson vocal samples being surgically implanted into fresh beats and progressions largely unrelated to the source material. The result was not only music the singer didn’t want released, but remixes of songs that never existed.
How far is too far? For an artist’s estate, often the only test appears to be: will it sell?
Avicii’s ‘Tim’ is out now, Prince’s ‘Originals’ is currently available exclusively on Tidal and is released across platforms on Friday, June 7
Updated: June 6, 2019 08:09 PM