Michael Jackson LP Joins Kurt Cobain, Biggie Posthumous Releases

Material released after an artist's death often complicated by legal, economic issues.

When Michael Jackson died in June 2009, he left behind a lot of mysteries, many of which will be puzzled over for years and some that will never be resolved. But one of those questions — namely, “What music did Jackson leave behind?” — will be answered when Michael, a new collection of previously unheard songs , is released on December 14.

It will be the first of many releases from the superstar’s estate, as Jackson apparently recorded “hundreds” of tracks before his death. (There are also apparently hundreds of never-before-heard Jackson 5 tracks as well).

Releasing posthumous albums can be extremely lucrative, but they are often weighed down by problematic legal issues. For example, Jimi Hendrix only released three albums before his untimely death in 1970, but there have been literally dozens of Hendrix-related releases since then. Hendrix died without a will, so the rights to unreleased tapes, demos and live performances (and there were many) were claimed by both Hendrix’s surviving family members and his record label as well as various recording studios. (Those issues were compounded by the fact that there was infighting within Hendrix’s family.)

If an artist has surviving bandmembers in addition to family, that introduces another complication. Kurt Cobain didn’t leave behind a ton of unreleased material, but the live tracks and demos that were in the vault have sold quite well since his 1994 death (especially via the 2004 box set With the Lights Out). The road to getting that material released has been fraught with all sorts of arguments between Cobain widow Courtney Love and surviving Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic.

But once legal issues are resolved, posthumous albums can continue to rack up big sales (and, perhaps more importantly, maintain an artist’s profile long after his or her death). When Tupac Shakur was murdered in 1996, there were rumors that he had left behind hundreds of hours of vocals that he’d recorded out of paranoia — Shakur built up the massive back catalogue because he was absolutely certain he would be killed. As a result, Shakur has released more new albums since his death (eight, all but one of which have gone platinum) than he did while he was alive (five).

Tupac’s situation brings up an important point about posthumous material, though. The main reason that artists tend not to release songs is generally because the material is subpar or not in line with the rest of their work. But once the artist has passed away and other people are called in to judge the quality, things can get problematic. Shakur’s posthumous albums do contain excellent songs, though many of them are fleshed out with filler and afterthoughts. The same goes for former friend and rival the Notorious B.I.G., who did not leave behind nearly as much material as Tupac. Still, that hasn’t stopped a pair of posthumous albums from hitting the street. Biggie was one of the best rappers of all time, but the material on 1999′s Born Again and 2005′s Duets: The Final Chapter doesn’t do anything to extend his legacy.

The fact that the first of Jackson’s left-behind material is coming out only 18 months after his death is a good sign for future releases, and the quality will be adjudicated just as soon as the first note starts streaming online Monday (November 8).

Considering the massive success of “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” ($261 million in worldwide box-office receipts) and the rest of Jackson’s catalogue since his death (9 million records moved in the first month after his death), it’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of these types of releases in the coming years.