Reaping the reaped: Music streaming against the wishes of the dead

A student listens to Prince on the online music streaming service Spotify. Photo Illustration by Kirsten Jackson | The Signal

Last year we saw many legendary music artists pass away. George Michael, singer of WHAM (followed by a successful solo career); David Bowie, the illustrious songwriter and brain behind Ziggy Stardust; and Prince, the Purple One, all left us behind.

The death of these hugely influential stars brings up a lot of emotions and questions. What is to come now that these icons have passed away? Who is the next big influence on the world? Did they have any material that didn’t make it out before they died? Will we ever find out?

After the death of the artist, the direct control that they had over their material is lost. The label who owns the copyrighted songs can put them in a new compilation, a new album of demos, b-sides, etc. It sounds wrong, and morally it may be, but believe it or not, it is completely legal.

Copyright possessions included in a will work just like a bike would. If you own the bike, you get to choose what happens with the bike after you die and who will be its new owner at that point. This bike is yours to decide what to do with until your last breath, and then it becomes someone else’s bike. At this point, you are dead, and this bike could be rented out, painted, destroyed, etc. based on the wishes of the new owner, regardless if it had all your favorite stickers on it and is reminiscent of your characteristics.

You, the former bike owner, have made the decision to pass this bike to them, and whatever they do with it is completely up to their discretion.

Copyrighted songs and how they are passed on is pretty easy to understand if you think of them as any other piece of owned property (such as a bike). Of course it gets complicated when factoring in money made from the owned property. If the artist is under contract at the time of death, the monetary benefits can be signed over to whomever the artist wants; but the freedom to continually release songs even after death is up to the label. This way the label and whoever is signed over the money from these songs are both still profiting, though the label has the power to make even more money from whatever they decide to put out posthumously.

One way copyright owners distribute songs is putting them on streaming services like Spotify. This happens even posthumously, such as the scenario with Prince.

Prince was an incredibly vocal artist in favor of fair pay for work. He went to great lengths to protect what he thought was the amount of money he should be paid for his work, including eradicating every uploaded song of his on YouTube with an impressive effort. The only versions of Prince songs on YouTube before his death were poorly recorded live versions and covers.

This is an artist who changed his name in order to release music outside of a contract he thought treated him poorly. He developed his own label under the distribution of Warner Brothers so that he could sign other artists. Shortly after his death, all of his songs were found on Spotify. Songs that were previously unreleased started to emerge in spurts thanks to Warner Brothers, who he resigned with in 2014. Warner Brothers says that the re-releases and distribution of his songs are “committed to upholding Prince’s high creative standards.” If they are committed to that high standard, then why would these songs not have been out already?

Should Prince’s wishes before his death be honored? Or should record labels bastardize someone’s art to continuously monetize? There is a serious moral dilemma here with the money that could be made from the songs of dead artists. Michael Jackson, who passed in 2009, earned $75 million in the last year, according to Forbes, and that is just from songs that have already been released and are streamed continuously. Prince has 400+ songs of completely unreleased material locked in a vault at his estate, and he only died a year ago. Prince’s family continues to make plenty of money off his released songs, but for labels to capitalize off of songs he did not release on his own seems a bit fishy.

There are some individuals that believe artists’ work should not be loosely crafted into b-side and demo albums just to make a buck. In 2015, demos for Amy Winehouse’s third LP were destroyed by her label Universal Music U.K. so that they could not be used for something in the future that Winehouse may not have wanted. Cited as an act of morality, this rare moment of compassion from a record label exemplifies respect  for the artist after death. Amy Winehouse’s two LP run is all that will be heard from the artist, but those outputs are albums from the mind of Winehouse, approved by Winehouse and a true representation of herself.

The emergence of streaming services like Spotify gives labels an easy way to make money. They no longer have to make physical copies to make money off unreleased music. They can throw together random musical thoughts and put them on as tracks, throw a cover on it, upload it to Spotify. The label starts to make money from it immediately with little to no effort because it is unheard and unreleased, which is like a dinner bell to the ears of die hard fans.

The idea of solidified existence of an artist is almost lost in the digital age. There is no definite end to a legacy if artists’ music continues to emerge in new albums after death. A legacy is less tangible if there is no point where the art stops. There needs to be time to reflect on these passed icons so that they may become icons. The absolute absence of art is fertile soil for inspiration and creativity.  


2017 Net Worth of dead Musicians

According to Forbes

Michael Jackson – $75 Million

Elvis Presley – $35 Million

Bob Marley – $23 Million

Tom Petty – $20 Million

Prince – $18 Million

David Bowie – $9.5 Million