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What Goes Into Releasing An Artist's Music Posthumously

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

George Michael fans, rejoice. His latest single is "This Is How (We Want You To Get High)." And it dropped this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS HOW (WE WANT YOU TO GET HIGH)")

GEORGE MICHAEL: (Singing) Your daddy was a drinker. Just kept drinking until the jokes he was thinking sounded true.

KELLY: Now it will not be lost on George Michael fans that he died nearly three years ago. This is a posthumous release, not an uncommon phenomenon. Just this year we've seen new albums from Avicii...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOS")

ALOE BLACC: (Singing) Can you hear me? SOS.

KELLY: ...And Leonard Cohen...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPENS TO THE HEART")

LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) There's a mist of summer kisses where I tried to double-park.

KELLY: ...Both artists that we lost in recent years. We wanted to know how that happens. So we have invited Stephen Thompson, writer and reviewer for NPR Music, also a weekly panelist on Pop Culture Happy Hour, to explain it for us. Stephen's here in the studio with me.

Hey, there.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, start with the why does this happen. Is this for the fans? Is it for the money? Why put out a song posthumously?

THOMPSON: Well, as always, it's both. And I think a lot of times, labels and estates, you know, face a little bit of a dilemma. You know, you don't necessarily want to be accused of just putting something out for the money. And at the same time, you don't want to bury an artist's legacy. If you have these recordings in your vault, it makes sense that you would want to share them just for archival purposes if nothing else.

KELLY: OK. And in the case of George Michael, how does this work that this actually comes to our attention this week?

THOMPSON: Well, in the case of George Michael, he had recorded this song obviously before he died. And there is a movie coming out this weekend called "Last Christmas." That title comes from a song by George Michael's group Wham!. This is a case where his estate and the publishers, the artist himself, everybody was cooperating in making this record. It's not necessarily like this was pieced together from spare parts.

KELLY: Although, is it fair to a musician - George Michael or anybody else - to do this? Maybe George Michael didn't want this song out there during his lifetime because he recorded it, thought, well, that's rubbish, I don't want it out in the world.

THOMPSON: It is very tricky. And you as a listener have to decide on a case-by-case basis if you're comfortable listening to something. Some artists are very protective of their legacies, very protective of what they put out. And unfortunately, it's sort of up to the survivors to decide what to do with it all.

KELLY: So how has this played out with some other artists? We mentioned Avicii. There are many others.

THOMPSON: Well, the most famous relatively recent example is Prince. You know, Prince's music is owned by Prince's estate. Prince famously had a massive vault of unreleased music. But Prince himself was very careful about what he wanted put out into the world. And now you have Prince's estate kind of doling out these pieces of, you know, like, demos and various recordings that had never seen the light of day. And some of them are fascinating. There's one that just came out a few weeks ago where it's a demo version of his - of a song he wrote called "I Feel For You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL FOR YOU (ACOUSTIC DEMO)")

PRINCE: (Singing) Baby, baby, when you look at me, I get a warm feeling inside. Sugar, sugar, won't you rescue me. Come take me for a ride.

KELLY: Wow. It's instantly familiar - of course, his voice - but so different from the Chaka Khan version we all know.

THOMPSON: And it's also a really useful historical artifact. He was very, very young when that recording was made. And you hear how fully formed he was as an artist, how pure his vocals are. And so as a listener, as a fan, as a lifelong fan, I am really glad to have an opportunity to hear that song even though Prince himself never put it out in his lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL FOR YOU (ACOUSTIC DEMO)")

PRINCE: (Singing) Baby, baby...

KELLY: Let me circle us back to where we began and George Michael. And put your reviewer's cap on. How's he hold up in 2019?

THOMPSON: Well, one thing that I really like about this new song, that I really appreciate, is how upbeat it is. You get a sense of the joy that could infuse so much of his music.

KELLY: That is Stephen Thompson, writer and reviewer for NPR Music and panelist for Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thanks for stopping by.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS HOW (WE WANT YOU TO GET HIGH)")

MICHAEL: (Singing) This is how we want you to get high. The way that we showed you, the way that we told you was decent. This is how we want you to get high... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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