Not With The Band: About These Elliott Smith’s New Releases
Last week, we learnt that we will soon be able to listen to new Elliott Smith’s songs, as the upcoming soundtrack for the documentary ‘Heaven Adores You’ will finally be available later this year. If you have seen the movie, you know that it featured plenty of unreleased and even never-heard-before material, like this very early song ‘I Love My Room’, which even found its way on YouTube, for a little while – last time it happened, it was taken down almost immediately.
Producer Kevin Moyer revealed to Pitchfork that the track list had ‘20 Elliott songs from the film with only around four or five having been previously released’. ‘So hopefully we can keep him and his memory alive through the movie and of course his music too with this soundtrack release,’ he said Moyer to Pitchfork. I know that the producers have the best intention, Kevin was a close friend of Elliott’s and he obviously still misses him a lot, but is this the right thing to do?
Almost at the same time, I stumbled on this article in the Guardian, questioning anybody’s rights to release new music after an artist’s death, they are barely talking about Elliott, but obviously the question applies here too. It has become very common these days, we see a lot of new releases coming from artists who are gone, from Kurt Cobain to Aaliyah, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Jeff Buckley… the list goes on and on. Of course everyone wants to make money off dead people since the ever-growing-post-mortem notoriety of an artist seems to be a universal trend. I cringed when I heard that people behind ‘Montage of Heck’ would release a soundtrack because I had already found the movie disturbing and exploitative, and the same could apply to many of the other artists already cited.
I obviously have more problems with demos intentionally unreleased when the artist was alive but suddenly made available to the public, than I have with posthumous releases of unfinished albums. Elliott Smith’s ‘From a Basement on the Hill’ had a posthumous release but at least he intended to release these songs. However does anybody think he would agree to share songs he wrote when he was 14? Songs he had never released or even shared when he was alive? Don’t you think he would be pissed off to see this early work spread to the masses? Knowing all the effort and work he was putting in the writing and recording of his songs, it’s safe to say he would not be happy to see these out there.
In the Guardian article, David Joseph, CEO of Universal Music UK, said ‘that he’d destroyed Amy Winehouse’s sketchy demos for her third album so that none of his successors could Frankenstein a record out of them.’ Is it the noble way to act, or is he depriving a generation from some potential gems and new insight in the mind of their favorite artist?
It’s always difficult to justify a post-mortem release by other than lucrative reasons. Of course you make fans very happy and people who are dead can’t possibly suffer from it, because they are dead and they obviously will never find out… Does it matter what a dead person would think? It all depends on the motives of the persons who are behind the releases, and I believe that the people behind Elliott’s new releases have good intentions, at least there is not a chance they will ever make Elliott sings a duet with some pop star as it sometimes happens with dead artists.
At the end, this is asking the fundamental question: Who owns art? Does art belong to the person who created it or to anyone else? When we wait long enough, music becomes public domain and there is no more question of personal propriety, but we react very differently when the artist’s death is still recent and his or her memory is still fresh in our minds. We have a very curious relationship with the dead, we still put candles and flowers in front of a wall as if they were watching us from some above-the-cloud place, we worship them and their art, and then, we think we are entitled to loot their private journals and private music files. Personally, I don’t believe in life after death, I don’t think the dead are watching us, but I still act if these people were alive,… I have no real answer, but I still feel uneasy with these releases and will always be.