When an artist dies, no one wants their art to do with them. That’s why estates – whether family-based or not –oversee what happens to a writer’s books or plays, a musician’s songs and recordings, an artist’s sketches and studies, etc.
Sometime it’s the estate that finds and cares for unreleased recordings, sketches for unfinished works, or early stories in a writer’s drawer. So I’m all for estates. In theory.
In practice, I’ve gotten to the point where, if I’m producing an event, I only want to work with living artists or ones who are dead long enough that there’s no estate to worry about. I produce an annual series of silent films with live music by various new-music bands each winter at the World Financial Center. I have learned not to even think of using any of the Charlie Chaplin classics of the 1930s: the Chaplin estate does not allow screenings of any of the Chaplin’s later films without Chaplin’s own scores. He was a songwriter himself, “Smile” being his most famous number, so again, I understand the estate’s reasoning; and the early Chaplin films are in fact fair game. But if an estate’s job is to ensure the visibility of its artist’s work, then putting restrictions on the people who want to present those works will actually have the opposite effect.
Another example: a friend of mine is a composer in London who specializes in art songs – i.e., musical settings of poetry. She wrangled for years with the completely disorganized, incredibly close-fisted estate of a well-known English artists whose texts she’d set. She saw her fantastic song cycle recorded, released on a major label -- and immediately pulled from the shelves because of threats from the estate. After more years and legal fees and mental duress, her song cycle was finally released; but the major label was no more and the album became not a moment of musical triumph but a reminder of a long, utterly draining and ultimately quite pointless fight.
Tell us: what estates have done well by their artists? What ones haven’t?
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