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The Question of Posthumous Music Releases

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The topic of posthumous releases has been on my mind for a few years, and so I was struck by an August 5 article published by PhysOrg™ entitled “Posthumous Album Releases Can Reward Fans But Diminish A Legacy,” which, in large part, mirrors my own conclusions.

One such assertion is offered by Diane Swanson, a professor of management and chair of the Business Ethics Education Initiative at Kansas State University, who says, “[M]isinterpreting the ideas of unfinished tunes and releasing substandard material would smack of greed to fans.”

I began to feel strongly about this when I asked for and received a review copy of a posthumous Jimi Hendrix album in 2009. Then, when later Hendrix issues came and I heard some of those cuts on radio, it reinforced my feeling that they should never have been released. As Steven Maxwell, an assistant professor of music and instructor of a history of rock and roll course, also at K-State, states in the PhysOrg article while speaking of Elvis Presley, “Much of that music that was posthumously released he had kept unreleased for a reason.”

What Maxwell said put into words what was precisely my reaction after hearing the Hendrix releases. It was okay, some of it was even good, or maybe even a little better. Overall, however, it just wasn’t Jimi. Part of Hendrix’s mystique was, of course, his stage act. What was on some of those posthumous releases and what his persona was onstage are worlds apart. What he exhibited in his stage act was exactly that – an act. The music is the true test. The real Jimi Hendrix was actually somewhat shy and even a little bashful, and a very private person. Those traits carried through to him being his own worst critic, as are many talented musicians. To paraphrase Maxwell, much of Hendrix’s unreleased music was unreleased for a reason.

When I consider the business world, particularly the music-business world, another one of Swanson’s statements rings very loudly and on target: “In matters of death,” he notes, “people are more sensitive about a business cashing in because it appears as crass commercialism and exploitation. If the motivation is really to make sure that a great work gets out there to honor someone’s legacy, it needs to be genuine and respectful to the artist and the ideas.”

Naturally, most of this posthumous music is never broadcast to the ears of the buying public until new recordings are released. Then it becomes a case of, “If the consumer doesn’t like it, tough titty!” Meanwhile, the record companies and the musicians’ heirs have pocketed the proceeds.

I’m given most of the music I write about, and I haven’t requested posthumous releases for review in a few years. I have no plans to change, either, although I’m sure there will be an exception here and there.

How ‘bout you, though? How do you feel about this issue? I’d like to hear from you.


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About Lou Novacheck