What’s Yours Is Ours

When an artist dies they lose what control they once had over their music, often leaving it to bickering family members or friends with their own agendas. Franz Kafka famously ordered his friend Max Brod to burn his unpublished manuscripts on his death. Brod refused, publishing The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, and leaving the remaining papers to his secretary. In 2012, an Israeli court ruled they were a “cultural asset of the Jewish people” and, as such, belonged to Israel – a country Kafka disowned in 1917 when he wrote to his girlfriend, Felice, and declared: “I am not a Zionist”. Even more prolific, Tupac has put out seven posthumous albums in the 20 years since his death. Acapellas he recorded in the last years of his life have been rearranged and put over beats he never heard by people he never met. Many are rightly troubled by this. But when Prince scrawls “slave” on his face and threatens his fans with legal action for posting videos of his live performances on Facebook, we’re quick to call him obsessive, controlling and precious.

The central tension in these debates is between acknowledging an artist’s control over their own work, and seeing the artist as a kind of public servant. It’s tempting to think that if the music has already been recorded then we ought to hear it – or, at least, it would be a shame if we didn’t. Who knew that Miles Davis and Prince collaborated in the 1990s? And why did only one bootlegged single emerge on a CD which, at the time, traded for around $70? There is something of the whiney, unrequited superfan here: Prince is somehow betraying us, those who love him most, by not releasing it. By virtue of the labour of fandom, all those lyrics learned, and all those Sunday afternoons spent trawling through Prince.org (“the site where Prince fans go to die”), we believe we have earned a right to hear the music.

Being a fan involves a personal investment in the artist. It’s this hero-worship and myth-making that distinguishes pop and rock music from almost any other art. We’re forever looking beyond the music, trying to catch a glimpse of the ghost of the artist, in biopics, memoirs, autobiographies, signatures on napkins… How can we get a true sense of their personality unless we are allowed access to unreleased material, demos and private notebooks? This drive for more leads to the notion that artists have a duty to churn out an oeuvre for fans to work through: picking out favourite albums, discussing band line-ups, arguing about whether they were better in their early Matador days or after they signed to Rough Trade. And yet, we would never consider forcing great artists to record more music. We’re much more comfortable waiting until their death before plundering the vaults for unreleased material.

This sinister sense of entitlement undermines the artist’s labour. Though Prince has always aimed his criticism at Warner Brothers for transforming his art into a commodity and alienating him from the process of production and the products of his art, the fans are complicit too. When Tupac is resurrected as a brand, or when demos and works-in-progress are released in special compilations, we commodify the creative process itself. At every step, the artist’s creative control is eroded. They are pushed further away from their art, even as we try to get closer to them through it. The whole enterprise becomes self-defeating.

In 1967, the Sand Pebbles had a hit single with ‘Love Power’, which reached no. 14 on the Billboard Black Singles chart. They never recorded an album. And they don’t owe us one. They’re craftsmen not public servants; what they choose to release is their public work and the product of their craft. What’s left is private. Our insatiable drive for more, in the end, frustrates our fandom by fostering the illusion that we can own the artist. This collapses the fundamental tension at the heart of the relationship between fan and musician: they are never entirely knowable; they can break our hearts, make terrible personal and creative decisions, or disappear completely.

—Matteo Tiratelli

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  1. […] But that’s always been the joy of Prince. The sheer quantity of music he produced is overwhelming, even for the most dedicated fan. He founded scores of spin-off groups and fronts to get around Warner Bros’s production cycle, which forced him to do one album and a tour every three years. He released five albums between 1994 and 1996 and fifteen from 2000 to 2015 (most of them double or triple albums). Rumour has it that he has written a song every day since the early 1970s. There are entire albums that only a select few have ever heard and which some swear are the best he ever recorded. If you thought that the Dilla or Tupac vaults made for an impressive posthumous release schedule, be prepared for a Panama Papers-sized musical dump from the Purple Vaults in Paisley Park. Or maybe not. There’s a chance the vaults will never be opened, or their contents are being doused in gasoline as you read this. Having once appeared in chains and a gag in protest at Warner Bros’s treatment of his work, it might be safe to assume Prince made provisions to have his secret recordings destroyed. But dead artists have a tendency to see their wishes overruled. […]

  2. […] But that’s always been the joy of Prince. The sheer quantity of music he produced is overwhelming, even for the most dedicated fan. He founded scores of spin-off groups and fronts to get around Warner Bros’s production cycle, which forced him to do one album and a tour every three years. He released five albums between 1994 and 1996 and fifteen from 2000 to 2015 (most of them double or triple albums). Rumour has it that he has written a song every day since the early 1970s. There are entire albums that only a select few have ever heard and which some swear are the best he ever recorded. If you thought that the Dilla or Tupac vaults made for an impressive posthumous release schedule, be prepared for a Panama Papers-sized musical dump from the Purple Vaults in Paisley Park. Or maybe not. There’s a chance the vaults will never be opened, or their contents are being doused in gasoline as you read this. Having once appeared in chains and a gag in protest at Warner Bros’s treatment of his work, it might be safe to assume Prince made provisions to have his secret recordings destroyed. But dead artists have a tendency to see their wishes overruled. […]

  3. […] But that’s always been the joy of Prince. The sheer quantity of music he produced is overwhelming, even for the most dedicated fan. He founded scores of spin-off groups and fronts to get around Warner Bros’s production cycle, which forced him to do one album and a tour every three years. He released five albums between 1994 and 1996 and fifteen from 2000 to 2015 (most of them double or triple albums). Rumour has it that he has written a song every day since the early 1970s. There are entire albums that only a select few have ever heard and which some swear are the best he ever recorded. If you thought that the Dilla or Tupac vaults made for an impressive posthumous release schedule, be prepared for a Panama Papers-sized musical dump from the Purple Vaults in Paisley Park. Or maybe not. There’s a chance the vaults will never be opened, or their contents are being doused in gasoline as you read this. Having once appeared in chains and a gag in protest at Warner Bros’s treatment of his work, it might be safe to assume Prince made provisions to have his secret recordings destroyed. But dead artists have a tendency to see their wishes overruled. […]



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