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Posthumous albums grow in popularity as labels seek to bring music to new audience

Two new David Bowie records will be released this year, with a digital EP featuring unheard versions of songs being released weekly and a live session, which will be out on Record Store Day in April.

The first track from the David Bowie Is It Any Wonder? EP, The Man Who Sold The World, was released on Wednesday to mark what would have been the singers 73rd birthday, with a new song released each week digitally.

The ChangesNowBowie live session, recorded in 1996 during rehearsals for Bowies 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, comes later in the year and was previously broadcast on Radio 1 by Mary Anne Hobbs.

Tracklistings are not available for either recording, although Parlophone Records said the Is It Any Wonder? EP will feature unreleased versions of songs from Bowies back catalogue which were recorded by him in the 1990s.

Both the EPs, titled David Bowie Is It Any Wonder?, and ChangesNowBowie, are released by Parlophone Records and are part of a lucrative posthumous career for the singer. Shortly after Bowies death in 2016 sales of his albums in the US rose by more than 5,000%, according to Nielsen Music, with 682,000 units sold in the week he died. Spotify said that streaming levels of his music increased 2,700% in the hours after his death.

But according to the people behind some of the most respected reissues, posthumous albums have evolved from being quick money-spinners for record labels to painstaking labours of love that bring forgotten musicians, including those Bowie admired, to a new audience.

Audika Records was set up by the former Tommy Boy record executive Steve Knutson, who used his own money to create a label that would put out music by the cult musician Arthur Russell, who Bowie was a fan of. I did it for selfish reasons, said Knutson, who was invited to look through Russells vast archive. I needed to hear this music and the only way it was going to happen was if I put it out myself.

In cooperation with Russells partner, Tom Lee who was given the rights to Russells music Knutson began to build the legacy of Russell, who was little known beyond the New York underground scene until Audika began issuing albums, beginning in 2004 with Calling Out Of Context. The 15th Russell release on Audika, Iowa Dreams, was released in November 2019.

Josh Cheon, the founder of the music label Dark Entries Records in San Francisco, had a similar experience with the disco producer Patrick Cowley, who is best known for his track You Make Me Feel Mighty Real with Sylvester, and who died in 1982. When a former business partner of Cowleys invited him to come and select records from his collection, Cheon and his DJing partners decided to take everything Cowley related, including several hours of unreleased music, on reel-to-reel tapes.

Cheon would eventually hunt down two porn soundtracks, which Cowley had made and released them on Dark Entries, along with detailed liner notes. The latest release, Mechanical Fantasy Box,is a collection of early works from 1973 to 1980. We are the guardians and the custodians of these peoples music. Were in charge of what the world gets to hear, said Cheon.

There is little data on posthumous releases and no official statistics have been compiled to measure their rise, but, since the 1960s, albums released after an artists death have proved to be incredibly popular among consumers. After Reddings Dock Of The Bay became the first album to become a posthumous No 1, artists from Jimi Hendrix to John Lennon, Janis Joplin and the Notorious BIG all went to No 1s after their deaths.

That popularity has led to a lucrative posthumous industry with estate management, rights disputes and hologram tours becoming the norm. But the handling of an artists legacy can be highly contentious. Princes estate has fought planned releases of the artists unreleased recordings since his death in 2016, and when Whitney Houston died in February 2012, Sony Music briefly raised the cost of her greatest hits on iTunes UK from 4.99 to 7.99 before reducing it after criticism.

Any hint of cynical profiteering is anathema to the indy labels. Matt Sullivan, who runs Light in the Attic Records, and Matt Werth, who founded the label RVNG Intl, say posthumous releases for unknown artists are a labour of love. Its really not a case of just turning up and getting someone to sign on the dotted line, said Sullivan. Weve been working on one release for more than a decade now.

David Bowies releases are most straightforward, with the singers estate owning the rights to his music, which are then licensed to Parlophone. No further releases have been announced for 2020, though there has been a Bowie boxset released every autumn for the last four years. Since his death there have been six live albums releases, including Serious Moonlight (Live 83), Live in Berlin (1978) and the 2018 Glastonbury 2000 that recorded his headlining performance at the Somerset festival.

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