Music by VICE

What Should We Do with an Artist’s Music After They Die?

We continue to pry open, quite literally in Prince’s case, the private works of artists to feast on their off-cuts, but is this fair?

by Alexandra Pollard
Feb 21 2017, 3:44pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK. 

No one wants to think about their own death. If they do, they're probably artists, and they tend to do so in an abstract, poetic kind of way, rather than an "I should probably file paperwork confirming the administrator of my estate and intellectual property" way. Which is perhaps why, when Prince died suddenly at the age of 57 last year, he didn't have even the semblance of a will.

With his death, then, came months of legal complications and hearings over who should manage his estate. And because the stakes were so unusually high, the eyes of the world looked on eagerly as the mess was slowly picked apart like a ball of tangled iPhone headphone cords. Would the silver lining of Prince's untimely end, his fans wondered, be the unveiling of the contents of his infamous vaults? The answer, it emerged last week, is yes.

After his estate was placed in the hands of bank Bremer Trust, and an extensive search for a will proved fruitless, the announcement everyone was waiting for—either hopefully or with trepidation—finally came: Prince's vaults were to be opened, and at least some of the contents, including outtakes, demos and live recordings, were to be released to the public.

If you're unfamiliar with the intricacies of Prince's vaults, here are a few things rumoured to be housed within their walls: a side project called The Rebels, shelved because the Purple One thought it was too generic and bland; an album of sped-up vocals set to be released under the pseudonym Camille, cancelled weeks prior to its release and eventually incorporated into 1987's Sign O' The Times; a Kevin Smith-directed documentary; an album of children's music inspired by the pregnancy of Prince's then wife Mayte Garcia, abandoned after their son died at one week old. The best bits and pieces from these abandoned projects – the fragments he actually felt worthy of showcasing – were injected into other projects. Those that fell by the wayside did so for a reason.

So why is it that we're so intent on prying open, quite literally in this case, the private works of artists and feasting on their off-cuts? Because it's not just Prince – Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Tupac and Amy Winehouse have all been subjected to a similar fascination and invasion. Whoever is in charge of their estate, whether it's for financial gain or a genuine desire to service loyal fans, squeezes out every last drop of music they can find, often watering down the quality of their back catalogue as a result. But is our insatiable curiosity borne out of a genuine desire to enjoy as much art as possible, or is just morbid fascination and an urge to get our hands on what we can't have? And does it matter that the artist may well have never intended the recordings to be heard by anyone but themselves?

As it turns out, the law is designed to make such a thing as easy as possible. "Celebrities' right of privacy is extremely limited," says James Sammataro, an entertainment lawyer and managing partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. "This is the 'price' for being a celebrity. With the possible exception of a diary – or some comparable item in which there's a universally recognised reasonable expectation of privacy – the rights to artists' creations are alienable, and human nature is to attempt to monetise these creations." The primary purpose of copyright law, Sammataro explains, is not really to protect the individual musician, but to "stimulate the progress of the arts for the intellectual enrichment of the public".

"While it seems harsh," Sammataro continues, "if Prince or other artists truly don't want their works disseminated, they need to memorialise this intention in a binding document, or either not fix the work in a tangible medium or destroy the work." In other words, if you're a musician, and you've got a tape lying around of the three-chord song you wrote at 15 after getting dumped for the first time, you should probably just burn it now. It's the only safe option.

It's cases like Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's (in the run-up to the release of Montage Of Heck, every half-arsed utterance Cobain ever committed to tape was made available to buy, and a decade before that, his private journals were published) that make musicians like Mitski consistently anxious. "Honestly, the thought of me dying before I'm done with a record, and having it handled without me, is what makes me look twice before I cross the street," she tells me. "If I deliberately didn't release something while alive, it means I didn't want it released at all, and I am mortified at the thought of people going through my notebooks and voice memos and releasing them to the public without my say. I'm terrified of what people in herds or groups feel justified in doing to individuals in order to sate whatever deep curiosity they have about them."

Laura Marling agrees: "It makes me think of the album that I shelved, and I think how crap it is, and how much of a product of a shitty time in my life it was. I wouldn't want to inflict that on anyone. So I hope no-one does release that. My friend's doing a doctorate in digital archiving, she was like, 'You should let me go through your computer and phone so that I can archive it for you,' and I'm like, 'Fucking no way would I do that!'"

And yet, nestled among all the unreleased recordings that should have never seen the light of day, lies the music of Arthur Russell. Arthur Russell, who was so chronically dissatisfied with his own music that he barely released any of it during his lifetime, who left behind literally thousands of tape reels upon his death in 1992, and who has been retrospectively lauded as one of the most important artists of his time. It's unlikely that he'd have been cited as an influence by the likes of Dev Hynes and LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, sampled by Kanye West, or covered by Robyn and Sufjan Stevens if his musical output had ended with his death. Another Thought, the beautiful, innovative album released two years after Russell's death, comprised mainly his voice, a single cello and sparse, synthy beats. It's possible that in his mind, these recordings were intended as rough outlines to be filled in at a later date. So should they have been released?

Pvris' Lyndsey Gunnulfsen has no problem with the idea. "I've actually thought about this recently," she says. "If I died in a car accident while we were working on a new record, I would definitely want it out there, otherwise it's just a waste of time and it never gets heard." When all four members of indie rock band Viola Beach were killed in a car accident at the start of last year, they hadn't even put out an album yet. In the following months, with the help of the band's families, the handful of material they'd already recorded was cobbled, along with some live sessions, into a self-titled, posthumous album. It reached number 1 in the UK. Whether it would have achieved the same feat were its release not bathed in tragedy we'll never know, but it's hard to imagine the four young men being anything other than proud.

Shura felt the same in the run-up to the release of her debut album, Nothing's Real. "If anything happens to me," she says she told her twin brother Nick, "please make sure that they still release my album. I want to have contributed to the world." But she knows too, that there's a difference between an up-and-coming musician wanting to make their mark, and music that more established artists clearly never wanted the world to hear.

Thanks to technology and social media, we live in a world with greater access to our favourite artists than we could have dreamed of just ten years ago. So it's easy to feel entitled to their creative work, whether they want us to hear it or not – and the law tends to support this. Sometimes though, rather than demanding the barrel be scraped over and over again, perhaps we should try and be happy with what we've already got. "With opening Prince's vault, and Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse," says Shura, "that was not meant to be a part of their discography, and I think we have to be OK with that. We demand so much from creative people. So as much as I would love to hear everything that Prince had ever written, it's not right. And I would never demand or expect that."

You can follow Alexandra on Twitter.

(Images provided by PR)