in article about posthumous Prince music, illustration of a newly-released Prince album

Posthumous Prince: Is Releasing His Music Ethical?

The pop star's renowned career was plagued with music industry controversy — both in life and death, it seems.
November 11, 2022
8 mins read

Almost immediately following the unexpected death of Prince in 2016, his music was released posthumously. Prince’s discography was already expansive; with over 39 albums and plenty of singles, there was no shortage of his music. But news of a secret vault in the pop icon’s basement began to circulate after his death, and “new” music of his has come out as recently as 2021. Reports say there is enough music in the vault to release new Prince albums for the next 100 years. But the question of why Prince did not release his basement tracks — and if his producers have the right to release them now — remains.

One reason many Prince fans criticize the posthumous release of his music is that, frankly, a lot of it is not that good. Prince had archived the tracks for a reason: they either weren’t good enough for release or were never meant to be heard. During his lifetime, Prince repurposed some of the vault tracks in his original releases, but now producers are publishing the demos as standalone music. This makes it difficult to separate the “real” Prince music from his demo music, especially for newer listeners. Releasing unfinished music now could majorly tarnish Prince’s legacy. Still, many die-hard Prince fans enjoy listening to the less-edited versions of their favorite songs and like to hear the artistic process of the musician, even if it isn’t always up to par.

Nevertheless, some of the music released after Prince’s death has been amazing. Never-before-seen live concerts and previously hidden recordings of some of the musician’s most famous songs have been made public by posthumous releases. Even entire albums that were unreleased due to legal issues have been unveiled since Prince’s death.

Prince fans seem to have mixed feelings about the release of his vault tracks. On the one hand, new Prince music is always exciting, but on the other, the artist himself expressed his negative feelings about losing control over his music numerous times. Prince’s disputes with his former record label, Warner Brothers, have become a critical segment of his legacy.

While signed to Warner Brothers, Prince wanted to release more music than the label allowed. For some, his desire may imply that the artist would be happy about the posthumous release of the music in his vaults and storage spaces. But Prince’s disputes with Warner Brothers revolved around the company’s total control over his intellectual property — his music. Prince protested his relationship with the label in many ways, including a performance with the word “slave” written on his cheek. The artist’s protests peaked when he changed his name to a symbol and referred to himself as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” So, it’s fairly certain that Prince would not approve of the unsolicited release of his songs.

Unfortunately, Prince’s untimely death also meant that he left no legal will behind. Almost immediately following his death, disputes over his estate began between his heirs and his publishing company, Primary Wave. The controversy persisted until this August, when Prince’s assets were split between the company and three of his half-siblings. Six years after his death, the disputes were finally resolved, but the largest stake in Prince’s estate went to Primary Wave instead of his family. Thus, Prince’s legacy is being used for profit by another record label, which doesn’t sit right with the musician’s fans.

It may be tempting to say that Prince should have destroyed the old recordings if he never wanted them to be released, but a lot of the works were simply unfinished or were used in other published recordings. They were just there for safekeeping. Other unreleased works by Prince were sentimental projects, including an album of children’s music inspired by the pregnancy of his wife, but he abandoned the project when his son died at one week old. The poignancy of some of his private work makes it difficult to defend those who are releasing the music.

Prince is not the only artist who had to fight for their artistic privacy posthumously. The untimely deaths of Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, and even more recently, the death of Mac Miller, have all generated legal disputes over the artists’ unreleased works. Most of the time, the artist’s right to privacy is nixed if they are not protected by a written will. In Prince’s case, even though much of his private music was stored in a vault, it still could not be protected from release following his death.

So, should producers be allowed to release music following an artist’s death? The answer is largely circumstantial. If the musician left a will, then the decision is and should be left to the person entrusted with the artist’s estate. But when it comes to unexpected deaths, which is often the case with musicians without a will and with unreleased or unfinished music, the answer becomes more complicated.

Most of the time, artists collaborate with several different producers and musicians to create a song or album. In the case of Mac Miller and his posthumous album “Circles,” producer Jon Brion completed the work after Miller’s death and prepared it for release. But the album was set to be released prior to artist’s death, and his family personally requested that Brion see the production through. This is quite different from Prince’s case.

In the eyes of the law, it is difficult to protect the privacy rights of musicians following their deaths without a written will. So, the burden falls on artists and their teams to create and regularly update a will to protect themselves and their estate following any unforeseen circumstances. But even with a will in place, there is no guarantee that an artist’s privacy will not be breached, or that their music will not be released against their wishes. Therefore, it is up to listeners to defend their favorites artists’ rights and to boycott any new music until the profits are given to the artist’s family.

Alexander Landgraf, The University of Chicago

Writer Profile

Alexander Landgraf

The University of Chicago
Public Policy, Economics

Alexander Landgraf is a second-year at the University of Chicago. In his free time, he enjoys reading, singing and listening to music.

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