Must We Respect the Wishes of Dead Artists?

You’ve undoubtedly read this title to this piece, so let’s cut right to the chase. Must we respect the wishes of dead artists? In my opinion, the answer is no, or more accurately, the annoying it depends.

If an artist leaves explicit instructions as to the distribution and use of their work in the form of legally binding documents, e.g. a will, then yes. Executors must and should comply with those wishes. In addition, if they leave instructions that preserve, honor, and distribute their works in a manner that respects the body of work and the public, then sure, by all means comply. For instance, if Musician A dies and says that she wants her music catalog put in the public domain, then do so. Her heirs wish to profit therefrom shouldn’t supersede her wish to allow people to enjoy her work free of charge. Likewise, if a photographer, say, a Garry Winogrand dies and states that he’d like someone to sort through his work and publish it so people can see it, then someone should do so, even if he didn’t explicitly say which work should be selected or how it should be edited.

When an artist dies, his work belongs to history, not his heirs, or at least solely so. I have no problem with a deceased artist’s family profiting from their works. The millions of Bob Marley children and Grandchildren should profit from his legacy, since they are the ones who honor it and represent it most. Similarly, Prince’s siblings should profit from his work since the late legend left no other instructions and no one seems to know whom he’d have trusted with it. When I die, my wife can do with any and all of my work as she pleases. You see, dead people shouldn’t care. They’re dead, right? Well, yes and no. Good artists become the art; therefore, they can’t die.

Yes, as an artist, feel free to protect your work while you live. Be controlling, be careful, be a douche about it if you like. Prince was a semi-douche with respect to his music being streamed, pretty much forbidding anyone but Jay-Z’s Tidal’s and Google Music All Access’ from having access to his catalog. But he’d earned that right via his years-long struggle battling Warner Brothers for rights with his work. He famously scribbled the word SLAVE on his face and produced shitty, commercialized tripe during his latter Warner years that threatened to make him irrelevant, all in an attempt to wrest his contract from the group. It eventually worked. In later years, he produced more vibrant work, and during live performances (which he also bottled up) did covers of famous songs that at times exceeded the best of his own work and the original song he was recording. Will we ever see them? Not if Prince could help it.


Prince Rogers Nelson — prettier than you.

There are those who say, “Well, he made the work. That’s his right.” My answer to them? “Fuck you.” (Of course, he’d admonish me not to curse.)

There has never been a rich artist who became rich by selling his or her work to himself or his family. As such, their work is, in a manner of thinking, a Works for Hire. The public pays for the work, and though we retain no ownership rights, one could claim it’s no different than a corporation who pays directly for the work. Given that, given that Prince’s entire legacy, fame, and wealth was built in cooperation between himself and his loyal fans, it shouldn’t be up to his famous stubborn selfishness to determine what music people hear. We get it, Prince, the songs were your babies. Now, let them grow up.

Okay, I’m being unfair on purpose. Prince’s battle was never about control of his work. It was about fairness to artists. What he said was clear:

If he were doing all of that just so Prince could own Prince’s stuff, then I’d have no sympathy. Except that wasn’t what he was doing at all. He was fighting for all artists and being able to control and profit from his work. He’s done so, and now, Universal Music has signed a deal with his estate to distribute his 25-album catalog next year, including Warner and NPG works. Will they rip off the public to do so? Prolly. But the work will be out there, his people will be compensated, and you will never convince me that any artist wants their works shuttered away in a dank dungeon. It’s why we artists do the work in the first place: so people will experience what we experience.

Prince was about control. He’d started his career before artists had the kind of control that Jay-Z and Beyoncé do now. Had he to do it over again, he’d have self-published and no corporation he didn’t own would have profited from his labor. I agree with him, and hope no corporation ever profits from mine either. But don’t think that control was purely about stubbornness, though his 2014 interview with Rolling Stone did reveal some insights.

“I’ve never said this before, but I didn’t always give the record companies the best song. There are songs in the vault that no one’s ever heard. There are several vaults; it’s not just one vault. I like time capsule stuff. I have a couple Revolution albums in the vault and two Time albums, one Vanity 6 album … and tons of stuff recorded in different periods. But so much gets recorded that you don’t have time to compile everything. In the future you could put all the best stuff from one particular time period together and then you can release it. It’d just be like if we found a Sly and the Family Stone album and they saved their best stuff. If that’s even possible!

Rolling Stone then asked him if that’s what he wanted to happen when he was gone. He replied: “No, I don’t think about gone. I just think about in the future when I don’t want to speak in real time.”

In other words, he, like Garry Winogrand, recognized he had an amazing catalog and hoped someone, somewhere would do something with it, but not a greedy corporation that would simply hoard it for money. So free the catalog, Prince’s heirs, but be very circumspect to whom you trust with that responsibility. There’s a Prince and Miles Davis album in the slush pile somewhere. Don’t let it get lost.

You thought I was lying, didn’t you? Nope.

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