Should we leave the dead to rest?

It’s a common debate amongst music lovers: is it okay to release artists’ work after they’ve died? Whether it’s just a remake of a classic hit or a whole posthumous album, it’s always controversial. 2016 has seen us say goodbye to many of our favourite musicians, most recently Leonard Cohen, which has left a lot of fans upset by the loss of potential material. These losses have also renewed the debate over whether it’s ethical to continue to make money from a dead artists’ work.

I sympathise with the fact that it’s very hard for fans to accept that they will never hear any new releases from their favourite talent again. Re-releasing an artist’s music after their death can be a way of keeping their memory alive. It can also be said that keeping musicians on the market makes their music available to be discovered by new generations, allowing their artistry to be enjoyed well into the future. Surely many of these releases are created with the best intentions, bearing in mind what the artist would have wanted and consulting families to ensure consistency with the artist’s vision.

These arguments could easily apply to ‘Best Of’ albums or new, digitally enhanced versions of old classics. These tend to be harmless; they often improve the quality of an old recording and, let’s be honest, they make a great Christmas present.

However, there’s also something a bit uncomfortable about record companies selling musicians’ work without their consent. It certainly begs the question: is it really about the music and its legacy? How much has it got to do with money? Probably quite a lot.

This is particularly relevant to the case of Prince’s unreleased material. The late pop star allegedly has huge amounts of recorded, but never released, music. His record company, Warner, now plan to produce an album of his unreleased tracks.

This has caused massive upset within the industry, especially since Prince had had a very problematic relationship with Warner for a long time, as well as being a vocal critic of big record companies’ power. This posthumous album will contain material Prince was clearly not satisfied with, as he never released it during his lifetime, leading many to accuse it of being downright disrespectful to his artistry.   

This seems to be a blatant money-making exercise. It’s impossible to argue you’re respecting an artist’s memory when overriding decisions taken by the artist during their lifetime. Prince himself argued against record companies controlling what a musician produces. It turns music from art into industry. To listen to an album that an artist never intended, is to listen to an album without soul.

This is also relevant to the new 2016 version of David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ music video. To be honest, it’s not very different to the original. In my opinion, it’s hardly worth watching. Footage is enhanced and a few filters are slapped on. That’s about it. To some people, it’s a respectful homage to a great artist. Very little is changed, so the essence of the video remains. But it also becomes an Instagram-style 21st century piece, bringing Bowie to a new generation.

To many, though, it’s a tacky, social-media-orientated distortion of a classic and much loved music video. It glosses over the imperfections of the early 70s film and, in doing so, its vintage charm is lost. Watch the video yourself and form your own opinion.

I predict this is only the beginning of a long line of re-releases, ‘Best Ofs’ and posthumous albums. The tragic deaths of so many great talents makes this inevitable. All we can do is hope that they’re done tastefully, with respect and with the artist’s interests in mind.

Katie O’Kelly

(Image: My Chord Book)

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