Many of us will accumulate vast libraries of digital books and music over the course of our lifetimes. But when we die, our collections of words and music may expire with us.
Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.
And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”
Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files — but they don’t actually own them.
Apple AAPL, +0.79% and Amazon.com AMZN, +0.98% grant “nontransferable” rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the “White Album” to your son and “Abbey Road” to your daughter.
“That account is an asset and something of value,” says Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss, an estate-planning attorney at Fein, Such, Kahn & Shepard in Parsippany, N.J.
But can it be passed on to one’s heirs?
Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” says Wheatley-Liss. In recent years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations don’t cover digital files purchased.
Apple and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
There are still few legal and practical ways to inherit e-books and digital music, experts say. And at least one lawyer has a plan to capitalize on what may become be a burgeoning market. David Goldman, a lawyer in Jacksonville, says he will next month launch software, DapTrust, to help estate planners create a legal trust for their clients’ online accounts that hold music, e-books and movies. “With traditional estate planning and wills, there’s no way to give the right to someone to access this kind of information after you’re gone,” he says.
Here’s how it works: Goldman will sell his software for $150 directly to estate planners to store and manage digital accounts and passwords. And, while there are other online safe-deposit boxes like AssetLock and ExecutorSource that already do that, Goldman says his software contains instructions to create a legal trust for accounts. “Having access to digital content and having the legal right to use it are two totally different things,” he says.
The simpler alternative is to just use your loved one’s devices and accounts after they’re gone — as long as you have the right passwords.
Chester Jankowski, a New York-based technology consultant, says he’d look for a way to get around the licensing code written into his 15,000 digital files. “Anyone who was tech-savvy could probably find a way to transfer those files onto their computer — without ending up in Guantanamo,” he says. But experts say there should be an easier solution, and a way such content can be transferred to another’s account or divided between several people.“We need to reform and update intellectual-property law,” says Dazza Greenwood, lecturer and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
Technology pros say the need for such reform is only going to become more pressing. “A significant portion of our assets is now digital,” Carroll says. U.S. consumers spend nearly $30 on e-books and MP3 files every month, or $360 a year, according to e-commerce company Bango. Apple alone has sold 300 million iPods and 84 million iPads since their launches. Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Kindle Fire, but analysts estimate it has nearly a quarter of the U.S. tablet market.
When my grandmother passed away this year, I was devastated. She may have been in her late 80s, but her sunny personality and boundless energy made it seem like she’d would probably just live forever.
My grandma was what you’d call a “silver surfer.” From the moment she inherited her daughter’s old laptop, she embraced the internet like a digital native. It wasn’t long before we were helping her set up a Facebook profile which she used to happily spend hours sharing cute animals videos and writing us sweet messages ALWAYS WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPS. I gave up explaining to her that this amounted to constant shouting. She liked it that way.
A few months after she’d passed away, I was a bit shocked to see her picture pop up in my notifications, reminding me that it was her birthday. I hadn’t forgotten, but it saddened me to imagine other family members whose grief was still very raw receiving similar messages. I had thought—perhaps naively—that since Facebook knew enough about my life and habits to bombard me with targeted advertisements it would also know my grandmother was no longer with us. But the bots didn’t have a clue.
I looked up the procedure to report a death to Facebook, and requested that her account be “memorialized.” This means that nobody can log in to the account again, but her posts remain visible to the people they were originally shared with, and friends and family can continue to share memories on her timeline. I wanted to digitally preserve the memory of my grandmother.
After making my request I almost immediately received a response from someone in Facebook’s community operations team asking me to send them her death certificate. Their response struck me as strange and insensitive—like I was making it up for some reason. Since I didn’t have that document (my grandmother lived in Brazil and I didn’t handle the funeral arrangements), I argued that they should be able to verify her passing through the evidence available on their own platform. Facebook eventually agreed, but I can’t say it was a particularly pleasant process.
Technology is currently challenging our conceptualization of what it means to live—and die.“The tech industry is not really up on death,” says Stacey Pitsillides, a design lecturer at the University of Greenwich who is a PhD candidate in the field of data contextualization in digital death. Since starting her research several years ago, Pitsillides says she’s witnessed a remarkable shift: People are becoming increasingly eager to immortalize personal experiences online, just as I had felt after my grandmother’s passing.
This observation prompted her to set up Love After Death, a panel showcased at FutureFest in London to help people explore how technology is becoming integrated into new forms of creative expressions around death and dying. I met Pitsillides at FutureFest, a festival of ideas sponsored by innovation charity NESTA, to discuss the concept of digital legacies.
Technology is currently challenging our conceptualization of what it means to live—and die. Pitsillides believes that technology and design will play an increasingly important role in the process of morning, which she calls “creative bereavement.” “By creating a bespoke legacy agreement, it merges the concept of a design agency with funeral director,” she said.
To illustrate this, Pitsillides started by taking me through a questionnaire that asked me things ranging from the practical (which loved ones should be informed of my death, and would I like to setup a database of music, art, or poetry to be used at my funeral?) to the weird and outlandish (would my friends like to do an online vigil through live webcasting where I could be present via hologram, and how about having a memorial implant or tattoo?)
But wait—holograms? Memorial implants? Was this for real?
In the future, yes.
Death by Design
“You could have a surface-level or below-skin digital tattoo that could be matched to that of a loved one,” Pitsillides explained. Using simple technologies, you could add content to these digital mementos throughout your life and then have them activated after your death. This activation could either be triggered by the executor of your will—over 19 US states have already put forward laws to recognize the deceased’s digital legacy as part of their estate—or we could evolve AI systems to recognize cues when this should happen. At that point, certain content could become available to the people you’d predetermined, depending on the stipulations you left in your digital will.
It’s basically the futuristic, high-tech version of wearing half of your lover’s heart-shaped locket. These tattoos and implants could even be programmed to trigger only in the context of certain events. For example, when walking past the special spot where a now-passed husband proposed to his wife, his widow’s digital tattoo could change color or bloom into the pattern of her favorite flower, and “their” song could start playing on her phone. Or a father could still “be there” to deliver the speech at his daughter’s wedding via hologram, or greet the arrival of his first grandchild with a pre-recorded message.
An increasingly popular service is using 3D printing to create personalized mementos for your friends and family using human ashes.While these memorialization usages are still conceptual, the technology itself is already fairly mature. For example, we already have technology that allows for smart epidermal electronics to collect and record information about users, reacting to this data in a wide variety of programmable ways: Think of IoT devices like Dexcom that continuously monitor glucose levels for diabetes patients, allowing them to track their blood sugar via apps linked to wearables like the Apple Watch. Instead of being focused on what our minds and bodies are doing in the present moment, these tactile technologies could help us build and enhance connections with people both during life and after death.
As more people embrace the idea that death in the digital age is not just about looking back at the past, they will begin to realize that it’s just as much about the future. We’re already seeing people grapple with this concept in terms of what happens to our bodies after we die. Nowadays your ashes can be turned into building blocks for a coral reef or a beautiful fireworks display, but there’s a whole other after-world emerging courtesy of technology. For example, an increasingly popular service is using 3D printing to create personalized mementos for your friends and family using human ashes.
The Talking Dead
Since such a large percentage of our lives and interactions are now conducted online, we are constantly forced to reassess our meaning of self and identity. Is our online identity the most accurate reflection of our true selves? And, if so, can it “live” independently from our physical bodies?
The answer is potentially yes. The connections we build and share can—now quite literally—take on a life of their own. For example, websites like LifeNaut offer services that allow you to create a “mind file” that supposedly enables future scenarios around reanimation through “downloading” your memories to a robot or clone vessel of some sort. We might not yet be at the stage where robotics and AI enable the Black Mirror scenario where life-like replicants of loved ones can be created from their social media profiles. But it’s no exaggeration to say that, for better or for worse, our digital footprint already outlives our biological self.
“We are moving toward a society where the dead are not banished but remain present in our lives as sources of guidance, role models, and as an embodiment of particular values and life lessons,” Pitsillides said.
But is that what we really want? The ability to live forever through technology raises difficult questions such as whether it is our memories that make us who we are, whether our loved ones would accept this “new” version of us, and who should control consent to make these kinds of decisions after death. This kind of permanence may be appealing for some, but for others the possibility of a digital presence continuously and independently evolving is quite disturbing.
Most of us avoid thinking about our own mortality until it stares us in the face. As someone who spends most of my time online, I’m unsettled by this idea of not being in control of my online persona once I die—even if I wouldn’t be in a position to care, at that point. But having experienced the enduring joy that my grandmother’s Facebook memories have brought to our family, it makes me think that my digital legacy is something worth preserving. And now I have the first steps to know how to do just that.
It is difficult to count how many websites I have signed up to in the last few years, many of which now seem to hold countless details of mine, from addresses to credit card details, photos and music.
Whilst privacy laws seem to just about be keeping up, and my data remains safe (I hope), the laws surrounding my “digital legacy” in the event of my death are far less developed.
I say less developed and that is perhaps unfair. What is less developed are the policies those website companies adopt on death and the publicity surrounding the subject of how my data will be handled when the day comes.
The Internet is no longer in its infancy, but it and all of the services collecting or holding my data are less than a generation old. As such, the issues arising on death are only just beginning to surface. As they do, public awareness will improve, as will the clarity over company policy on the data being held.
A few websites now include something about what would occur on death in the small print but whilst the subject of death remains taboo (and certainly does not make for glamorous marketing material), few of us will have time to read it or consider what might happen when we die.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, however. It is thought that only a half of those in the UK over 50 have a will. We should all have one!
So what should we all be doing? Sadly, that is a difficult question at present whilst the policies of each website and company remain so different.
As a start, it would be sensible to maintain a list of those websites and applications that store important data about you: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, email accounts, etc. It should then be passed to the solicitor holding your will or a family member. That way, even without passwords, in the event of your death, the time, stress and cost of having to identify those sites can be avoided.
The most organised might even include passwords but if we follow the advice given to us by the experts, we should be changing our passwords regularly, so the opportunity for these lists to quickly become out of date is huge.
This is a developing area and I expect we will soon see more on the subject.
Copyright matters. It is a body of law that affects what we know, how we experience and understand the world, and what we are allowed to do with the knowledge we gain. But for most of us copyright is more of a snarl. We only know of it as a restriction that complicates how we interact with each other. It is not often experienced as regulation that helps make good new things happen.
So what is happening with the rules that will affect our capacity to “leap, connect, sparkle and guide” others? There is a copyright agenda underway. And in short, under Attorney-General George Brandis, there has been a lot of twitching and jerking.
Brandis did not have a clean slate. When he took his place in the Abbott ministry there was already an extensive and much needed review of copyright underway, established by the former Labor government.
Brandis sat on the final report for some time, tabling it in Parliament on February 13, 2014. The day after he gave a speech where he agreed with the problems highlighted in the report:
“The Copyright Act is overly long, unnecessarily complex, often comically outdated and all too often in its administration, pointlessly bureaucratic.”
But rather than engage with the recommendations of the report, he raised the furphy of piracy — an issue specifically excluded from the ALRC terms of reference, reserved for trade discussions conducted without public input — and then in August 2015 the Abbott government established yet another review.
However successive governments have negotiated away many areas of Australian IP policy in international agreements, beginning with Chapter 17 of the 2005 the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement, and more recently the 2015 Trans-Pacific Partnership. These agreements, negotiated without public scrutiny or evidence about impact, limit our capacity to determine the national interest in fashioning the balance of our IP laws.
In terms of copyright, the Productivity Commission inquiry covers much of the same ground as the ALRC: efficiency and balance, adaptability for the future and evidence based reform. In response to the issues paper 115 submissions were received. There will be another round of public submissions when the discussion paper is released in March/April 2016. So many rounds of public consultation going on, but to what end?
Among the raft of government business hidden in the Christmas break an Exposure Draft was released by the Department of the Communication and Arts (DOCA) on December 23, 2015. There is a public invitation for comment until February 12, 2016.
The background paper to the Exposure Draft notes:
“It is appropriate to proceed with the amendments contained in the Bill before the [Productivity] Commission reports as those amendments simplify the operation of the Act and are likely to be consistent with the recommendations (if any) made by the Commission.”
However the draft provisions are far from simple to follow. They completely fail to address basic issues affecting those who legally access material held in public collections. The bill is based on fantasies about how institutions work in practice and ignores the public’s experience of them altogether. Mere oversight or part of the government’s design?
For example, section 113M allows libraries and archives to make “preservation copies” of original material that is of historical or cultural significance to Australia, but they are not allowed to make these copies available to patrons except through a terminal on site. As a researcher I am not allowed to make an electronic copy of the material so I can use it in writing up my research. As is common practice in libraries I would probably be allowed to transcribe a document by hand.
However transcribing by hand is, as a matter by law, no different to a digital reproduction. Why does this law require me to spend public research money to physically attend the institution, perhaps also requiring an airfare and accommodation expenses, so I can take out my quill?
The bill sets out excessively complicated rules that allow institutions to provide material that might or might not be in copyright to researchers. The rules only apply to a limited number of institutions. The ability to comply with them is based on the incorrect assumption that collections are catalogued to the Nth degree where it is easy to determine who the author was, the date of making the work, the date of publication of the work, the date of the author’s death, relevant details of the current estate holder.
These collections have little commercial, educational or cultural value if left dead, buried and forgotten because of lousy copyright laws. Institutional purpose and the value of the collection is generated when the material is utilised, repurposed, and made to bloom again, by users of the collection.
If the “ideas boom” is to move from mediocre slogan to stimulate real “leaps” and progress so that the “brightest” can shine, there is a need for more than a redistribution of public funds to starving public institutions. Copyright law reform needs to be taken seriously as a political concern, not left as a plaything shunted from inquiry to inquiry, while other games are carried on behind the scenes.
Kathy Bowrey is a Professor in Intellectual Property Law at UNSW.
Remember Britannia High? 2008 UK’s answer to Fame? The just-before-primetime ITV song-and-dance debacle that was axed after one series? They were great days. The show, of course, was a complete disaster, both on a creative, commercial, in fact, every possible level.
But if you examine audition footage of Britannia High on YouTube maybe you’ll start to wonder if the whole thing could have been rescued, had the show only made different casting decisions. Here, for instance, is a great singer who didn’t make the cut.
In case you couldn’t be bothered to watch the clip above, the “great singer” auditioning for Britannia High is Ed Sheeran.
Now it’s funny isn’t it—you never read Ed Sheeran talking too much about his attempt to become the next Darcey Bussell when he was launching the career we know and love today. It was all “SBTV” this, “Wiley and Sway” that.
Ed Sheeran isn’t alone in suffering from selective career amnesia. When Haim stomped towards the top of the BBC Sound Of 2013 poll, they weren’t regaling the media with tales of the time two Haim sisters starred in absurd teen pop band Valli Girls, notable for tunes like “It’s a Hair Thing.” Tahliah Barnett isn’t big on telling the world about the time, years before she was FKA Twigs, when she appeared as a dancing carwash attendant in a Dionne Bromfield video.
Pop’s always been full of these Sliding Doors moments, but in the digital age it’s hard for an act to remove evidence of their pasts. Hard, but not impossible. Last year, at the behest of the Court of Justice of the European Union, Google implemented a “right to be forgotten” procedure. It’s a way for people to get pages removed from Google searches, the logic being that if you get caught having a wank on the bus when you’re 22 and Metro decide to publish a LOL news story about it, it’s reasonable to hope that a potential employer won’t find out about it when you’re 28.
For musicians, swap out “potential employer” for potential fans, potential record labels, and potentially keen journalists. And for “having a wank on a bus” insert “making terrible music and videos,” and consider Sam Smith. Prior to a career jump-start from Disclosure he was just another pop hopeful with a really helpful mother. Unfortunately long before Grammy wins, Bond themes, and household name status, he was busy recording and releasing songs like “Bad Day All Week.” “Bad Day All Week” was the opposite of a good song, and it was accompanied by an arse-clenchingly awful video.
Usually there would be a video embed instead of this paragraph, right? That’s how journalism works in 2015.
But the video just isn’t online any more—it disappeared from YouTube, and these days seems to be swiftly dealt with if it does reappear. Similarly many of Sam’s pre-fame tweets, in which he alluded to his sexuality and obsessive Gaga fan status, have also disappeared.
In the US, prior to becoming Kanye’s current protégé, Kacy Hill was a model in a controversial (aren’t they all) American Apparel campaign, and eyebrow-raising ads don’t sit well alongside the singy-songwritey image she’s now putting forward. Naturally, those shots aren’t mentioned in her official bio—which is what many journalists will work from when writing about her—but it also looks like her lawyers have been trying to get those shots unlisted by Google. Kacy now seems to own the copyright in those images so takedowns should be successful to a degree, but what about Sam Smith’s deleted tweets, which can no longer be embedded but whose words live on, copied and pasted in pages like this?
“People do own the copyright in their own tweets,” says Twitter’s Bruce Daisley. “Strictly speaking there would be grounds to make a claim, but generally we see that when people are asked politely to remove those things, they tend to comply.” Those tweets could also fall under fair use, which circumvents copyright when it comes to commentary and news reporting. In any case, Daisley has another word of caution for any artists thinking of getting lawyers involved. “I do wonder,” he says, “if going to law on it might go a bit ‘Streisand’.”
He’s referring to the Streisand effect, a phenomenon so well known that it has its own Wikipedia page but which bears repeating here because it’s funny. In 2005 a photographer took 12,000 photographs of the California coastline in order to document coastal erosion. It seems fair to assume he couldn’t have given two shits about Barbra Streisand but one of those 12,000 pictures contained Streisand’s home, resulting in a lawsuit from Babs. The picture had been downloaded a grand total of six times before Barbra kicked up a fuss; four times if you don’t count downloads by Barbra’s lawyers. In the month following the well publicized lawsuit, almost half a million people visited the site.
“The risk of trying to take down old music, or old videos is not only that you will never get rid of them all, but also that you risk highlighting a problem and thus creating a story out of that,” agrees one music publicist who’s helped massage the profiles of various “new” artists. “I’d advise people in this situation to just try and own it—the more you try to hide something, the bigger deal people think it is, and the bigger a story it becomes. It’s definitely better to just own it and move on.”
Internet privacy expert Frank M Ahearn, whose books include How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, is similarly wary of asking sites to remove content. “The website could post that you requested removal and it could go viral again,” he agrees. “Some celebrity clients I have worked for have done some embarrassing work in the past and once they make it, they want to turn back clock and rid the world of the past. But it is extremely difficult. The internet is like the tide; information and photos come and go. What you delete today can easily creep up tomorrow.”
Ahearn adds that Google’s measures are “useless” when VPNs and other search engines exist, and when asked to consider Sam Smith’s predicament he suggests an elaborate smokescreen. “If you are famous, sometimes I suggest to clients to leave it, let it ride it course and hope it dies a digital death,” he says. “Alternatively, we begin creating disinformation that Sam Smith from London Shoe Store tweeted the information, and then I build blogs where the fake Sam takes responsibility for the information. It does not always work but sometimes it creates doubt and other tweeters and bloggers assist disseminating the doubt.”
Despite the risks, there’s still a chance nobody will notice the disappearance of content, so there’s strong temptation to quietly remove content you have access to in your own sites and social channels—particularly if you’re trying to launch your music via a media industry that exists on layer upon layers of tastemaker approval.
The singer in one act currently hoping for a place on the 2016 tips lists said they’d talk to Noisey if we didn’t blow their cover, which under the circumstances seems fair enough. The rough story, though, is that their current offering is fairly leftfield and requires tastemaker support in order to get traction, but a couple of years ago they were in a markedly less credible band that had been formed by a titanically uncool management company.
“There is a cloud over my head,” they admit to Noisey. “I’m worried it could all come back and bite my ass. I suppose it’s like if you walked into someone’s bedroom to pick up a phone charger and saw that they had a whip and handcuffs. It’s not necessarily that I’m self conscious of it myself—it’s just that it could be detrimental to my current goals. Which is dumb, but whatever.”
Does it seem unfair how there’s now an expectation that all artists should get it right first time? It feels like experimentation is being penalised, in a way. “It is unfair, I think,” they agree. “People do things that don’t work. I don’t see why it should be a problem. I was 18 and my personal music was in a rut—I had no idea how anything worked in the industry so I took the plunge. I learnt a lot in that time, but then I started again on a new journey that, hopefully, I’ll get right this time.”
It’s important to state that this new artist isn’t being paranoid about how their previous exploits might affect their future chances. “With new artists, everything needs to be perfect,” says James Penycate, a digital communications expert whose work has included launching artists like Tom Odell, Tove Lo and Ghostpoet. “We all know how difficult it is to sell an act through Radio 1. To catch the attention of their key decision makers you need numerical or statistical proof that you have an engaged audience or the potential for one, but just as importantly you need a true avalanche of support from tastemakers. This whole subject boils down to authenticity.”
It might seem strange at a point when credible publications are falling over each other to tell the world how much they like the new Justin Bieber album but when it comes to a new act, rightly or wrongly (mainly wrongly), the sense that an artist has changed direction implies that their current incarnation is somehow false. Reasonable people might say that having a chicken sandwich for lunch yesterday doesn’t necessarily mean the soup you ate today is suspicious or unconvincing, but to the media a change in direction can look calculating or manufactured.
The fear, Penycate says, is that an act will get to the point where they need everyone on side (and many acts are at that point right now, with tastemakers currently voting in next year’s new artist polls) only for something awful to be revealed. “It could completely derail your campaign,” he explains. “The laughable thing is: do consumers really care? I don’t know if they do. Does the media care? Yes. That’s the problem.”
But as long as the media continues its obsession with credibility, and as long as massaging past exploits works, it’ll remain the norm. Last year’s BBC Sound Poll winners were Years & Years. During 2014 they made all the right moves in terms of engaging tastemakers: small gigs, an EP release, a featured vocal on a dance track. But before that all took place, they’d deleted early work from online accounts.
“When we first started making music we just put everything online,” Olly from the band says today. “Obviously no one gave a shit so it didn’t matter that there was random music and video floating about. When we did eventually get management as a result of those videos the first thing they said was ‘take everything offline’. This was meant to make us more appealing to potential labels. We were pretty happy to do it—it felt good to wipe the slate clean and put our best foot forward.”
Years & Years had gone through lineup changes and their music had also developed in style and quality, but they didn’t take absolutely everything offline immediately, and early videos remained online. When they signed to Polydor, even those went. “At that stage we all decided that the stuff we’d put online didn’t reflect who we were as a band anymore,” Olly explains. “We felt that if this was going to be the first time for most people to hear about us, we wanted people to see what we thought represented us best.”
When direct and honest communication with fans is so important, doesn’t this seem slightly dishonest? Olly reckons not. “I don’t think it’s being dishonest—people’s first impressions of you are really important so you wanna get that right. If we were going on a first date I wouldn’t be showing you pictures of how I was a little chunky and had a mullet a few years ago. To be honest some of our more hardcore fans have found old links or downloaded all that stuff. Nothing’s really erased on the internet anymore, right?”
It’s not only new artists who choose to sidestep portions of their careers. And sometimes the media, instead of having the wool pulled over their own eyes, are complicit in nurturing a selective narrative. It’s interesting how little is made of Beyoncé’s confusing mid-period between Destiny’s and “Crazy In Love.” The hugeness of her current success eclipses the role in Austin Powers that gave Beyoncé her first solo hit single. Likewise, chaos theorists could have a field day speculating what might have happened had Destiny’s Child never recorded a shit single in 1998 with Corrie mechanic-turned-hopeless-popstar Matthew Marsden:
That song came out through Columbia in 1998, but over on another Sony imprint in the same year, Northwestside boss Nick Raphael was securing a guest vocal from Beyoncé’s future husband. And so it was that Jay Z released a single with boyband Another Level.
“Rappers have made guest appearances for pop records for the last 30 years,” Nick Raphael recalls today. “It adds another dimension to the recording. At the time, outside America Jay was a credible, but niche artist—not the Jay-Z we know today.”
Raphael states that Jay has nothing to be embarrassed about musically (“he’s one of the greatest artists of all time”); these days Raphael is president of Capitol Records, home to Sam Smith among others, and he insists that a dodgy history doesn’t come into play when he and his longterm A&R associate Jo Charrington are looking at new artists.
“Very few artists strike upon their eventual paths immediately,” he reasons. “If artists don’t experiment, how will they find their true voice? When Jo and I sign an artist we judge the music they are presenting to us now. If their past behavior will affect their future success we have to bear that in mind—but it’s not a decision we’d base on their previous works.”
The same can’t necessarily be said for how the media look at things, and many artists—from Years & Years and Sam Smith to the likes of Lana Del Rey, Katy Perry, and Drake—have all benefitted from diverting attention away from their earliest work. Right now the music industry is built on quick and dirty experimentation and fast pivots if something doesn’t work out, with each incarnation of an artist’s endeavour leaving a digital footprint. And it’s still a headache for the anonymous hopeful we met earlier, who tells Noisey: “I’ve removed things from my personal accounts and deleted what I can, but it’s an ongoing effort to conceal a cheesy couple of years from influential people.”
Still, while he can’t speak for those in the media who obsess over artists’ perceived indiscretions, Nick Raphael offers some encouraging advice to any artist currently worrying about skeletons in cupboards. “Your history makes you more interesting to your fans,” he says. “Embrace who you are.”