Trapital is a newsletter about the business side of hip-hop. Each week, Dan Runcie breaks down the strategic moves that shape the culture. Dan’s writing has been published in WIRED, Pigeons & Plane, Medium, and other publications. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan – Ross School of Business and Quinnipiac University.
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Today’s artists earn money in more ways than ever, which fuels the debates on how to best manage their careers when they die.
Before Mac Miller passed away, he recorded an unreleased album with hip-hop DJ, Madlib. Some fans are eager to hear more music from the beloved rapper. Others are adamant that the unreleased music should stay shelved. These debates are nothing new. XXXTentacion, Amy Winehouse, Lil’ Peep, and other late artists have had their fans, estates, and record labels argue over the monetization of their posthumous careers.
Despite the music industry’s evolving landscape, these arguments are stuck in time. From Sam Cooke to Tupac Shakur to Michael Jackson, the same ethical concerns resurface each instance. And these issues will likely get worse before they get better.
Today’s artists make money in more ways than ever. The average rapper has more income streams than a multinational enterprise. There’s a number of business ventures to account for. Newer concepts and technology have further complicated the posthumous landscape.
Regardless of the intention, fanbases will question the integrity of each decision that’s made. Estate administrators will face more challenges to navigate an age-old problem in a rapidly changing industry.
The artist’s estate has legal authority, but its decisions are still subject to the court of public opinion.
Identifying the real issues
These debates have a ton of grey area. Those who advocate for the public release of shelved music are quick to cite ‘cream of the crop’ posthumous albums.
But there’s a big difference between The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death (1997) and The Biggie Duets (2005). Life After Death was a completed project that was released 16 days after Big died. The album had a set release date that the Brooklyn rapper agreed to. It’s “posthumous” by a mere technicality. The sophomore release is considered a classic, but that’s not a rationale to let the people hear all of Biggie’s unreleased tracks.
Meanwhile, The Biggie Duets was a compilation of unreleased material, older tracks, and mashups with a wide range of artists. Method Man spoke for a lot of folks who were unhappy about the end result. “They got niggas on that album Big would have never rocked with, for real.” (He didn’t mention names, but I just checked the track list and whoa buddy he was not lying). The artist’s estate has legal authority to determine what gets released, but its decisions are still subject to the court of public opinion.
Mac Miller’s unreleased Maclib project highlights the nuance. The album is apparently “finished,” but has no release date, no statement from Mac Miller, and no word from his estate. Producer Thelonius Martin is not a fan of posthumous releases but said that if Madlib wants to release the joint album with Mac Miller, he should.
XXXTentacion’s estate has dealt with the same questions. The late South Florida rapper signed a $10 million deal with Empire Records weeks before his death. His first posthumous album, Skins, was released in December. There’s surely more to come. Here’s a quote from X’s manager Solomon Sobande in his December interview with Variety:
“Right after [X] passed, I don’t even remember who gave me the advice, but somebody was, like, ‘Yo, pay attention to the Tupac estate and watch what they did.’ And I learned that’s it’s about not doing everything at once, but being able to spread things out. It’s about balancing and patience.”
Tupac’s estate might be a helpful guide for an unreleased catalog, but the estate has still faced controversy with a separate issue—the monetization of existing music.
The estate approved the notorious Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012. There has also been a series of lawsuits with Death Row Records over unpaid royalties. And the disappointing All Eyez on Me biopic was heavily downplayed by the estate on several occasions.
The issues with unreleased and existing music will only get worse. Technology has compounded both challenges with new platforms to monetize content. It has also presented new opportunities outside of music to account for.
The industry is torn on its position on unreleased music. Some think the music is unreleased for a reason and should stay that way. Others believe its fair game. Here’s a quote from entertainment lawyer James Sammataro in a 2017 interview with Noisey:
“If Prince or other artists truly don’t want their works disseminated, they need to memorialise this intention in a binding document, or either not fix the work in a tangible medium or destroy the work.”
In the streaming era, this perspective may call to question the ethics of digital streaming platforms. SoundCloud and Spotify allow artists to directly upload music. Many artists probably have unreleased music on their accounts. The streaming services may need to establish a position on how it should handle this music if an artist does not specify in their will.
Music that’s already been released may face even more challenges. The role of publishers will be increasingly difficult. An artist’s music is featured in more digital properties than ever. Someone will also have to fight legal battles with companies like Epic Games (creators of Fortnite) and others that directly and indirectly profit off music.
Many artists also earn income through Instagram and other social media platforms. They can sell and promote products like influencers. An estates can leverage that clout. Michael Jackson posts more on Instagram than I do and he passed before the app launched! These decisions raise questions for all parties involved. Even well-intended efforts can be received poorly.
Many of today’s artists also run side businesses in various industries. Management teams will need more than the standard entertainment lawyers to help the estate administer each step. The wide range of business ventures needs to be accounted for.
Where to go from here
A lot of people want to see the industry set a standard. The most common ask is for artists to delete unreleased music and write comprehensive wills that address all possible circumstances. When Prince died without a will, many folks believed that those documents would answer the questions that his estate is left to determine.
Wills are still wise, but won’t solve the underlying issue for two reasons. First, artists with detailed wills still get swept up in posthumous controversy. Michael Jackson had at least four iterations of his will. His estate has managed enough lawsuits to start its own day-time TV show.
Second, there are too many unforeseeable outcomes. Wills would need to be updated in real time to account for the growing number of options for artists to monetize their art. No one knows if Tupac would have wanted a hologram because it wasn’t a thing in 1996.
The industry’s push will ease some issues, but there are still intangibles. The easiest cases are those where the artist did not live a problematic life, the estate is well-intentioned, and the record labels act in everyone’s best interest. It’s an ideal yet challenging expectation given the vast number of players and a wide range of interests.
Mac Miller might be a best-case scenario. The entire music community has shown its love and admiration for his growth in hip-hop. The sympathy for his substance abuse struggles has been overwhelmingly positive.
Some fans want to see a Mac Miller biopic. But if the project gets the green light, it’s inevitable that the portrayal of Mac’s battles with addiction and past relationships will polarize audiences. It’s a sensitive topic that requires a certain level of buy-in to push forward.
It’s important to maintain perspective. Fans are not a monolith. It’s impossible to please everyone. If estate’s make decisions that are fair, earnest, and not exploitative, that’s all we can ask for.
But no more no holograms, please. Let’s end all that.