Is it ethical to release music posthumously?

“The world hurries on at its breakneck pace
People fly by in their lifelong race
For them there’s a future to find
And I think they’re leaving me behind
The chances they come, but the chances have been lost
Success can be gained but at too great a cost
For some there’s a future to find
But I think they’re leaving me behind”
Nick Drake is known for his cryptic and chilling lyricism, often cut over extremely complex and engaging solo guitar composition. The powerful and explicitly depressing words from “They’re Leaving Me Behind,” released on the collection of home recordings and withheld tracks titled Family Tree, offer a more exposed look at the thoughts and inner-workings of Nick Drake’s mind. Family Tree was released in 2007, 33 years after Drake’s tragic suicide. The album includes many songs of a similar nature to “They’re Leaving Me Behind,” which can be described as less-polished cousins to the quivering masterpiece that is Pink Moon.

As far as anyone can know, Nick Drake had no intention to release these songs in his lifetime. This raises a question: is it ethical to release music or art when the artist is not present to do so him/herself? As fans, we can’t help but be drawn to the private works of our favorite musicians, but the twinge of guilt felt upon pressing play is irrepressible for many.
It’s like peeking into a diary; for a lot of musicians, songwriting is a way to work through certain emotions and flesh out their darkest, most private thoughts. Many artists don’t publish the bulk of their creations, releasing only what they are most proud of or what they feel most accurately conveys the message they are trying to deliver. In his lifetime, Nick Drake released a total of 31 tracks over three albums. Island Records, with the approval of Drake’s sister Molly, released 28 tracks posthumously, nearly doubling his total discography.
It should be said that even in the mid-2000s, songs were being leaked and distributed throughout the darker corners of the web without the approval of the artists or labels. With that in mind, is there really a problem with a record label offering a formal, dignified release of a song that may eventually find itself on YouTube anyway?
Nick Drake isn’t the only deceased musician still releasing music from the grave. An album featuring new songs under Kurt Cobain’s name came out in 2015 to accompany a movie about his life. Elliot Smith’s compilation of unreleased songs, New Moon, was made available three years after his untimely death. Xscape was released under Michael Jackson’s name five years after his death. Joy Division released their critically important record, Closer, two months after their frontman and songwriter Ian Curtis hung himself.
These records feature some of the most compelling and emotionally honest work, yet the artists responsible never gave the nod for that work to be published. Is it perhaps because they were unsatisfied with the work? Or did they not want to reveal so much of their inner turmoil? It’s possible they did not feel the work was complete and that it deserved more time and thought to be something they were proud of and ready to share.
That being said, without those records we wouldn’t have the deep and soulful folk tune “Angel in the Snow” by Elliot Smith. We wouldn’t have the heart-wrenching, staple post-punk anthem “Love Will Tear Us Apart” from Joy Division, a song that nearly defines an entire genre.

When a musician releases an album, or even just a song, they are giving to us. They have relinquished their ownership, thereby creating something that transcends property. It is ours to enjoy, to laugh at, to criticize, to cry to. But it is only ours when the artist says it’s ours, or else we are stealing, which makes listening to albums the likes of Family Tree or New Moon a guilty pleasure in the truest sense of the phrase.
Guest Writer: John Wheeler

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