Considering the wishes and rights of the dead
October 28, 2019 8:05 AM   Subscribe

[On Oct. 18, 2019], Prince’s estate surprise-dropped an acoustic demo (YouTube) of a 20-year-old Prince singing a sparse version of “I Feel For You,” the song Chaka Khan would later turn into a comeback hit in 1984 (YT). [...] Is the recording good? Undoubtedly. [...] What’s less clear? Whether we should have access to this recording, an early unfinished work by a notoriously private artist, at all. Reckoning with the Ethics of the Ever-Unfurling Prince Vault -- The demos, b-sides and rarities keep coming. How should we feel about listening? (Katie Cameron for Paste Magazine) Related: Rights of the Dead, a legal article by Kirsten Rabe Smolensky (full article PDF).
posted by filthy light thief (33 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
A tangent that amused me: the abstract referred to "Hohfeldian notions," for Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld (Wikipedia), an American jurist who published only a handful of law journal articles in his life, but after he died, some of his works were re-compiled into Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning and Other Legal Essays (originally in 1919; 1920 edition on Internet Archive), which was later considered a seminal publication.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:10 AM on October 28, 2019


The traditional method of arranging that your private documents stay private once you're dead is to burn them while you're still alive. Prince obviously didn't do that.

Robert Heinlein was a famously privacy-sensitive person. His first novel, unpublished during his lifetime (because face it, it was unsaleably bad) (and concerned with how notions of privacy shape society even!) was published posthumously because it turned out there was a copy he failed to burn. I bought a copy and read it! Without shame! Because he's dead and no longer in a position to care! I mean, I can see why he thought it would be better never seen by another person, but the way I figure it, the right of a living person to better understand somebody who's dead outweighs the right of the dead person to be misunderstood in the way that he would (if he were still alive) prefer.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 8:32 AM on October 28, 2019 [14 favorites]


The situation with Prince is going to end up similarly, I expect, to Frank Zappa, hopefully minus the family drama.

There's a lot of archival material in both of their vaults, and a lot of demand from fans for it. It's also a revenue stream for the estate and its owners, so there's incentive to make it happen. For both, there is a degree to which exploiting the contents of the vault runs against the artists's wishes. Prince's stance on controlling his output is well known, while Zappa famously stated that "[A]fter I am dead and gone, there is no need to deal with any of this stuff, because it is not written for future generations, it is not performed for future generations. It is performed for now."

And, as Aardvark Cheeselog noted, now neither of them are around to care. As long as the use of the archival material isn't done to an exploitative degree, like say, recordings of Prince's grocery lists or, or aimless strumming and tuning, it's okay in my book. As long as what's being released has value—historical and/or artistic—it's worth it, and nobody is making anyone purchase these archive releases.
posted by SansPoint at 8:36 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]


The situation with Prince is going to end up similarly, I expect, to Frank Zappa

Lady Gaga gets his house?
posted by thelonius at 8:46 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


I mean, Prince obviously hired and used lawyers often, as witness his aggressive pursuit of YouTube videos; at some point, he might have had one of his esquires, I dunno, write up a will for him?
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:52 AM on October 28, 2019 [6 favorites]


It as, unsurprisingly, an excellent version of the song. And for that I thank Prince and his estate.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:54 AM on October 28, 2019 [4 favorites]


I’ve been spinning the A- and B-sides of this single nonstop all weekend, a must-listen.
posted by porn in the woods at 9:02 AM on October 28, 2019


I think that this is on the same moral wavelength as the estate tax. I.e. there is a line to what you can claim as "yours", especially when there is no you anymore.
I'd say that this is only a moral discussion if you're really into making things into moral discussions. This is a moral discussion only for people with too much free time on their hands and no problems in their life.
And frankly, I can't imagine Prince caring. I'm sure he knew he was weird, and I'm sure if his ghost is floating around here somewhere looking at all of this, he's probably pretty happy with the fact that people are still finding new Prince stuff to get into. He didn't want to be forgotten, that's for sure.
I'm sure that this was never a prince release because this was a Chaka track. Given his misgivings with Sinead O'Connor's success with Nothing Compares 2 U, I'm certain that he'd get a kick out of people prefering his raw version to Chaka's.
posted by svenni at 9:22 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]


The traditional method of arranging that your private documents stay private once you're dead is to burn them while you're still alive.

Indeed, just ask Franz Kafka and Max Brod about this.
posted by Fizz at 9:28 AM on October 28, 2019 [5 favorites]


svenni: And frankly, I can't imagine Prince caring. I'm sure he knew he was weird, and I'm sure if his ghost is floating around here somewhere looking at all of this, he's probably pretty happy with the fact that people are still finding new Prince stuff to get into. He didn't want to be forgotten, that's for sure.

The article, Cameron lays out both sides -- that of the very private and self-managed world and image of Prince, and then noting that he opened Paisley Park for tours in the past, charging $15 in 2000 (which sold out of tickets, per Mtv News) to see exhibits he curated during his own lifetime. (Tours now run $45 to $170, per Minneapolis.org.)

I was just discussing the Age of Expanded Remastered Editions, with so many Major Albums hitting various notable anniversaries (or just being old enough to sell alongside bonus discs of demos, studio outtakes, and live recordings). Except many bands have members who are still alive, but making less music, so it's iterations on past music, where Prince is dead, and these cuts are new to the world, beyond some tracks that have been circulating on Prince bootlegs (4thefunk).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:51 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


If you really don't want your unfinished work to get out you do what Terry Pratchett did and organize a steamroller with people you trust.
posted by cirhosis at 9:53 AM on October 28, 2019 [3 favorites]


Came to make the Kafka ref. Fizz beat me to it; thank you.
posted by doctornemo at 10:24 AM on October 28, 2019


The situation with Prince is going to end up similarly, I expect, to Frank Zappa

I thought Zappa told his wife to sell out and squeeze every last dollar out of his material after he died. Was that not the case?
posted by sideshow at 10:46 AM on October 28, 2019


sideshow: According to a Rolling Stone article about the Zappa Family Feud:
Before his death, Frank told his wife to “sell everything and get out of this horrible business.” Instead, Gail, the daughter of a nuclear physicist who reportedly worked on the Manhattan Project, became the exacting, often litigious gatekeeper of the Zappa family business.
That could be read both ways, but seeing as during his life, Frank expressed that he also didn't care what happened to his output or about being remembered, it's seems like he just wanted Gail and family to be rid of everything, not milk the archives.
posted by SansPoint at 10:55 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


Apparently the Zappa kids have reconciled. Dweezil will be playing Hot Rats and the Trust will be touring with the Hologram. (Love is not music, music is the best)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:52 AM on October 28, 2019 [3 favorites]


Right from the start, Prince got the business side of being a musical artist like most new talents usually don't and soon regret. Singer, songwriter, rights holder, manager, choreographer, arrangements producer, engineer--all just one purple dude.
Consider also that he wrote and recorded full-time, compulsively even. His musicians were used to being on-call, day and night. Bass hero Larry Graham relo'd his family from Jamaica to Minneapolis and got used to a life of snow and 2am studio calls, no regrets.
IMO, he released his art with full-on business/marketing strategy rather than just aesthetic consideration determining what got dropped. Demos, Alt takes and also rans but *plenty of content* in his vault contains a lot of stuff that just didn't fit his vision at the time for commercial release.
He also, through a pseudonymous company of his called Sabotage, took over the market from those who would bootleg his content and amoung the hundreds of CDs he sold this way sprinkled them with the occasional brilliant song not found on any album.
So the likelihood that his vault is filled with second rate material unworthy of release is just less likely. His just released demo, as an example if you haven't heard it yet, bears this out.
posted by Fupped Duck at 11:53 AM on October 28, 2019 [7 favorites]


I tend to come down on the side of releasing things. And in the case of an artist like Prince who is known to have myriad complete, finished works in the vault, all the more so.

If it is really true that he has thousands of songs in the vault then quality control can still ride hand in hand with letting us get to know him better.

It's not like they're the Jimi Hendrix estate, whose next release is probably something akin to "Hey, This Is Jimi. Leave a Message at the Beep, Baby."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:28 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


DirtyOldTown: Fuck the Hendrix estate. They've basically banned DEVO's music video for their cover of "Are You Experienced?" for "insulting" Hendrix... despite the fact that the Hendrix impersonator is (presumably) authorized Hendrix impersonator Randy Hansen who still has a career doing Hendrix impersonation.
posted by SansPoint at 1:05 PM on October 28, 2019


The world is a better place for this being public, and while I see the dilemma, I don't care a ton whether the artist now very much formerly known as ever meant it to be public, because he's dead.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:08 PM on October 28, 2019


Same. Give me the Prince albums and Salinger books, please.

I'm all for respecting the artist's preferences during their lifetime, but after a certain point, their work is part of history and belongs to the world.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:16 PM on October 28, 2019


Prince also had Kevin Smith (yes, Silent Bob) film a documentery on him. I heard Kevin talking about it (on a Podcast or YouTube) a while back and after filming it, he handed it over and was asking when it might be released to which Prince's people basically said, "Probably never."
posted by Pipester at 1:24 PM on October 28, 2019 [3 favorites]


I feel that the work of the dead should be in the public domain.
posted by srboisvert at 2:06 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


srboisvert: Agreed, but I'm also okay with artists families and heirs making money off of it for a period first. Let's say... 10 years.
posted by SansPoint at 2:12 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


Pipester: Prince also had Kevin Smith (yes, Silent Bob) film a documentery on him.

I like the idea that Prince has a ton of material made by other people for him that's also just sitting around, to be released ... eventually.

Life + 10 is shorter than what any country has now (Wikipedia - list of countries' copyright lengths), which are typically life + 50 or 70 years, though there are some life + 60, life + 80, and Côte d'Ivoire uses life + 99. On the other end, Universal Copyright Convention (Britannica) minimums are life + 25, except for photographic works and works of applied art, which have a 10-year term.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:53 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


Jesus fucking christ, just sit back and enjoy the guy's genius.
posted by humboldt32 at 3:33 PM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]


Kevin Smith's Prince story is awesome.

Also this reminded me of what an enormous loss Prince's death represents. Aside from the fact that a human being died, we lost all that talent. So much good music and just ridiculous talent.
posted by biscotti at 3:37 PM on October 28, 2019


Is it right to have so much talent and choose only to share a portion of it, do you think? I mean, I acknowledge that anyone has the right to do so in ordinary circumstances, but what (if any) burden does talent place upon its possessors? I mean, it is, in some respects, a gift: yes, Prince worked phenomenally hard, but all the work in the world would mean nothing without a talent that was produced by circumstances beyond his control, and which rested significantly on the efforts and ingenuity of others. Was he doing something in any sense wrong if he spent an hour playing through some alternate arrangements and didn't get it on tape? I mean, I don't think it's entirely absurd to think he might have been: there are cases where I believe most people think it would be immoral to withhold one's talent, but it feels like the strong cases are mostly 'life and death' scenarios, and probably aren't compelling comparators.
posted by howfar at 5:23 PM on October 28, 2019


I will warm myself by the heat of wringing hands as I listen to this song. Cozy!
posted by hilberseimer at 6:50 PM on October 28, 2019


There's a pragmatic case for respecting the wishes of deceased artists. If archival material can be reliably kept in archives after death without making it into circulation, then living artists with privacy concerns are more likely to preserve, rather than destroy, their archival content.

Preserved material that the general public can't access, at least for the time being, is better than material that no longer exists.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 7:57 PM on October 28, 2019


A few years ago Elizabeth Fraser, the voice of the Cocteau Twins, did some concerts.

(This is an incredibly rare thing - she sometimes performs with Massive Attack, in fact she was doing so only recently, but as far as I know these are the only shows she's performed under her own name.)

There were a few Cocteaux songs and Song to the Siren but the bulk of the show was new material. Which has never been released, and may never be released. I wish it were, but she doesn't want to and it is her stuff.

Curious to watch a show thinking that this might be the only time I hear these particular songs.

(A bootleg turned up later, of course, but hardly hi fi. And, of course, she's still very much with us, but I wonder whether it's not similar - in this case a complete album rather than a set of out-takes, but which the artist doesn't want to release.)
posted by Grangousier at 1:41 AM on October 29, 2019 [1 favorite]


Grangousier: In the case of Elizabeth Fraser, it might not be that she doesn't want to release it, but can't due to contractual bullshit. Happens to musicians fairly often in the biz.
posted by SansPoint at 6:46 AM on October 29, 2019


Grangousier: There were a few Cocteaux songs and Song to the Siren but the bulk of the show was new material. Which has never been released, and may never be released. I wish it were, but she doesn't want to and it is her stuff.

In addition to possibly being locked into a contract, she might be working new material. This is fairly common for musicians (and comedians) to try versions of songs out before they decide a "final" version, sometimes getting reworked over years, but I realize it's more notable for a reclusive artist like Fraser.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:12 PM on October 29, 2019


She does seem genuinely reluctant to release the material - an interview ten years ago précised her feelings as " the music isn't finished, and isn't ready for public consumption". She did release a single called Moses at that time as a tribute to one of the musicians who'd worked on it. Anyway, still no album. I thought it was an example of someone who's still alive putting her fans in a similar position. I do occasionally listen to the bootlegs because they're the only versions available and I suppose that's a morally dubious thing to do.

Apologies if it's a derail. I'm not entirely rational on the subject of Elizabeth Fraser's music.
posted by Grangousier at 4:49 PM on October 29, 2019


« Older After the Fall of the Glossy Magazine, What's Left...   |   Revolutionary art to propel history forward. Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments