Posthumous releases & life after death

Our responsibility to artists who are no longer here

Posthumous releases should honour, not profit.
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The end of an artist’s life does not signal the end of their career. 
 
Rather, the death of a musician, actor, or writer, often spurs a revival of their popularity that frequently coincides with a posthumous release.
 
Although they can provide closure to an artist’s career, posthumous releases are rarely of the same quality as work produced in an artist’s life. Many of them also exploit a person’s death for profit without the artist’s expressed consent to have their work released.
 
Of course, there’s great variation in posthumous releases—some are very good, and some are not very good. For instance, Kafka’s The Trial is a masterpiece, and although it was never completed, Kafka’s voice is preserved after his death. 
 
With that said, it feels unsettling to judge posthumous releases based on their merits—we’re discussing something that’s been released with at least the partial intention to memorialize a person who’s died, after all. 
 
Judging posthumous releases is tricky. However, there’s a reason most of these things weren’t released while these artists were alive: they weren’t finished. 
 
We can see this in posthumous albums rife with features, with the original artists taking a backseat role in the actual content. Musicians now often get two posthumous releases which only compounds the lack of substantial new music actually being released.
 
Additionally, would artists even want their work to be released posthumously?
 
There must be a reason it wasn’t made available while they lived. Should it really be within the power of record executives and publishers to decide if an artist’s work is shared if they cannot consent? Surely they deserve to have control over their art even in death.
 
Ultimately, the absence of considerable material to constitute a new release and the lack of artist consent makes posthumous work seem exploitative as record labels and publishers use increased awareness to increase sales. 
 
Sometimes the profits go to charitable causes, but this is not always the case—either way it does not excuse executives for releasing material that is not theirs.
 
On the flip side, though, there’s an argument to be made in favour of posthumous releases. 
 
They memorialize the artist—they’re a farewell to the world. There’s also a clear demand for these releases: people want more content from the artists they love, so why should we withhold it from them?
 
Regardless, how we feel about posthumous releases will likely vary widely between artists and how we feel about the ethics. It might be legal for us to release an artist’s work after they die, but is it moral?
 
We must ask ourselves who is truly benefitting from these releases. When posthumous albums chart at number one on Billboard for weeks, who really profits?
 
Executives should feel a massive burden of responsibility to ensure posthumous releases are handled sensitively. Maybe it could be something like asking an artist about releasing posthumous work and getting their permission beforehand. Regardless, they must seek to honour their lives and not profit off their deaths.
 
This is not to say that posthumous releases are void of value, but there needs to be a reconsideration of how we do them. 
 
It’s wonderful that these artists continue to bring joy to people’s lives after death. However, we must ensure our joy does not come at the expense of their memory.
 

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