What Circles Can Teach Us About Elegantly Navigating the Posthumous Release (Or, Skills We Wish We Didn’t Need)

The recent release of Mac Miller’s album Circles meant a lot of things to a lot of people: a bittersweet farewell from an icon, a poetic sense of closure in his discography, and, on the most basic level, who doesn’t welcome new music from a long-beloved artist? On a less personal level, it also carries staggering significance in the broader context of the music industry: it’s evidence that the posthumous release, a delicate operation, with which the industry has a notoriously tumultuous track record, can be executed with grace.  

Even musicians of the most iconic stature are not immune to the posthumous flop. The long list includes albums by Michael Jackson (some of the work released after his death sounded so different that his family disputed that it was even his voice), The Doors (their hearts were in the right place), and Biggie Smalls (The King & I, obviously not Life After Death, which is bop marathon). In fact, music released after the death of the artist is often has such a polarizing effect on their legacy that, when Amy Winehouse died, the CEO of her label opted to destroy her unfinished material rather than allow it to be released. 

Of course, not all posthumous released are flops. But even the successful ones can distort the intentions of the artist. After Tupac Shakur died at the height of his career, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory was released within two months to overwhelming critical and commercial success. However, in order to capitalize on Tupac’s death and level of fame, the plan for the release was revised rather severely- the release date was moved up by four months and expanded to become commercial, rather than the previously planned underground release. Consequently, the artwork (which originally included Biggie as a pig and Sean Combs as a ballerina) had to be censored to conform to mass-market standards. So while the album excelled by most conventional standards, it’s difficult to know whether it is an honest reflection of the artist. 

Recently, preserving the artist’s memory seems to be trending towards the foreground, but still struggles to dislodge profit, historically at the apex of the release hierarchy. When rapper Lil Peep died tragically young, Columbia Records took it upon themselves to complete and release Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, the album he’d left behind. Columbia’s process made it clear that they recognized the gravity of the responsibility- corresponding with his family and associates, employing highly reputable musicians, hosting an elegant listening session, which featured a speech from Peep’s mother in which she commended the efforts of the label- but this recognition didn’t translate into the commercial release of the album, which featured two controversial bonus songs that had been conspicuously absent from the listening session. Many felt these songs, one of which included a feature by the controversial artist XXXTENTACION, were a clear dismissal of Lil Peep’s memory (he was notoriously selective about who he worked with), in favor of maximizing profits. 

Mac Miller’s Circles presented a similar situation to Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2: both were sequels of a sort- albums that expanded upon or responded to preceding work- and both albums were largely finished before the artist passed. But the Circles release, thus far remarkably absent of controversy, suggests that the industry is beginning to learn from its mistakes. From arrangement and production, to release, to merch sales, actions taken at every step of the process indicate that the memory and the legacy of Mac Miller were at the foremost position.

The completion of the album was highly centralized, conducted in large part by Jon Brion, who has a history of working closely with Miller. The release was understated, with family at the helm of promotion, hinting at the album of Miller’s Instagram. The profits from merchandise sales were donated to The Mac Miller Fund, a philanthropic decision that echoes the 2019 release of Avicii’s posthumous album, Tim. Despite its subdued promotion, the album has been met with enormous commercial success, with seven songs in the Spotify Top 20 songs the weekend of its release, as well as overwhelming positive critical reception. With any luck, the success of Circles will serve as a guiding light for the music industry, a lesson that creating a resonant album, and staying true to an artist’s legacy, are not mutually exclusive. 

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