On Releasing Music After the Artist’s Passing.
By Carolyn Kravets
Photo by Elizabeth Watson
Otis Redding, enroute from a television appearance in Cleveland, Ohio to a concert in Madison, Wisconsin, died after his plane crashed into a frozen lake. On December 10, 1967, just three miles shy of the runway, Redding, along with six others, perished. In 1968, Redding released “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, the first posthumous single to top charts in the United States.
The “King of Pop” died on June 25, 2009 due to cardiac arrest. Initially ruled a homicide, Michael Jackson’s lethal overdose later charged his personal physician with involuntary manslaughter. On December 10, 2010 (the 43rd anniversary of Redding’s death) the Jackson estate released Michael, a compilation of tracks unreleased before the artist’s death. Epic Records, MJJ Music, and Sony Music Entertainment went on to release Xscape on May 9, 2014 — Jackson’s second posthumous album.
Malcolm McCormick, professionally known as Mac Miller, overdosed in his Los Angeles home on September 7, 2018, after mixing alcohol, fentanyl, and cocaine. McCormick had been working on his sixth and final album, Circles, prior to his death. REMember Music and Warner Records released the album on January 17, 2020.
An artist’s late work comes to light, almost ceremoniously, after their death. Musicians, with multiple projects in the works at any given time, often leave behind unfinished songs and albums at the time of their passing. Works recorded while an artist is alive often get produced and released posthumously by record labels, talent management, or other artists. Pop Smoke, Lil Peep, Juice Wrld, and King Von are among the more recent to release music after passing. Posthumous albums released by an artist’s record label must be work not released when the artist was previously alive; “greatest hits”, or remastered work would not be considered a posthumous release. In the absence of the artist, their work persists.
Artwork, however, is said to be a practice in intentionality. A record label or production team can’t accurately extrapolate an artist’s intentions with their absence. How close an album is mixed and released after an artist has died is often a point of contention among fans and listeners alike. The creative flare an artist adds to a song may be lost if the project were to be picked up by someone new. A cult following may not want an unfinished song to be finished by a fresh set of eyes.
Alternatively, fans may prefer a collaborative effort over the purely authentic work from a deceased artist. It’s true that most, if not all, posthumous releases contain creative decisions from sources other than the artist themselves. This often raises questions about the replication of genres and style. If the individuals who worked closely with Michael Jackson can reliably replicate his creative talent and ability, what does that say about the music Jackson produced when he was alive? Intentions of those tasked with finishing projects are uncertain: replicate what an artist would have done, or honor their image with something complementary? If painters can have apprentices learn their visual style, then why can’t musical efforts be continued after death?
In response to the 2010 release of Michael, fans questioned the authenticity of Jackson’s vocals on the tracks “Breaking News,” “Keep Your Head Up,” and “Monster.” Listeners believe these songs were sung by Jason Malachi, given his vocal similarity. The Jackson estate claims that Jackson himself recorded the songs with his production team, Edward Cascio and James Porte, in 2007 — but fans are convinced to no avail. Sony has since removed all three songs from participating streaming platforms.
While some artists are scrutinized, others find momentous success only after passing. Pop Smoke was twenty years old when he was shot and killed during a home invasion on February 19, 2020. This incident happened just twelve days after his breakthrough mixtape, and a couple weeks before he could finish his debut album. Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, released July 3, 2020, garnered immediate success, featuring Roddy Ricch, DaBaby, Future, and Swae Lee. Co-executive produced by 50 Cent, all nineteen songs on Shoot for the Stars made it to Billboard Hot 100 following the album’s release.
Other posthumous successes include Juice Wrld’s Legends Never Die, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, selling 517,800 and 690,000 albums respectively their first week. The artists, however, aren’t the ones collecting profits or claiming rights to these releases. When Lil Peep died in 2017, his mother, Liza Womack, didn’t have any legal right over his work in the absence of her twenty-one-year-old son’s will. Womack filed a lawsuit against Peep’s label in 2019. Many fans cautiously recognize the profits a dead artist’s label serves to gain upon the release of a posthumous album.
“Do not continue anything in my name if I die. You got this on record,” said Tyler the Creator to XXL Magazine. “If I ever die, I don’t want people to put my music out… [with] features with people I do not fuck with. The companies are over with. Everything’s done.”
Otis Redding, “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay” (1968)
Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Buffalo Soldier” (1983)
Tupac Shakur, “Changes” (1998)
Nirvana, “You Know You’re Right” (2002)
Michael Jackson, Xscape (2014); Michael (2010); This Is It (2009)
Mac Miller, Circles (2020)
XXXTentacion, Skins (2018); Bad Vibes Forever (2019)
Pop Smoke, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon (2020); Faith (2021)
King Von, What It Means to Be King (2022)
Juice Wrld, Legends Never Die (2020); Fighting Demons (2021)
Notorious B.I.G., Life After Death (1997)
Other Sources Used:
13 Best Posthumous Songs
Every Project Michael Jackson’s Estate Has Released Since His Death
Posthumous Albums Explained
Who Profits From the Posthumous Album Release