Managing the Cobain Legacy – How Does One Create Lasting Memory and Appeal?

Times change.

Sure, some artists will always have a place in musical histories – but that’s not the same as giving them a vibrant posthumous life. This is a simple consequence of life; musical tastes change as generations succeed one another. The greatest shifts in music in the past half century were the handover of the baton from classical to jazz, from jazz to rock, from rock to hip hop/R n’ B/urban (I’ve long since lost track of what to call it.) Sat in a darkened cinema that seats perhaps fifty people, seeing there were still seats for “Montage of Heck” free – it certainly reminded me that Nirvana weren’t as big a force in the U.K. as they were in the U.S. and that Cobain’s enduring appeal isn’t as total as it might seem among fan circles.

Nirvana circles are constantly caught between a number of kneejerk reactions that can be read in the comments sections beneath most articles online; firstly, “can’t we stop exploiting the guy? Isn’t this done? Can’t he rest in peace? Do they have to keep pumping out new material when only the three albums plus Incesticide are essential?” The second, “why aren’t they releasing X known archive recording? Where is the official release of Y? Can’t the record label get it together and put Z out after all these years?” It’s a feast or famine narrative; one part of the audience has had enough, one part wants more. Someone somewhere has to arbitrate between these two audience segments and ensure the conversation keeps going if a legacy is to be supported.

Before that, there’s a basic legal decision to be made. Many fans get caught up in the acquisitive urge – the idea that a creative individual’s works ‘belong’ to the audience rather than to the family, friends and loved ones of that individual. It’s usually couched in the language of freedom (the same way conservatives couch the withdrawal of government support for the needy as a way of giving those people freedom) when I’d have to say the idea of stripping an individual of any rights to define the inheritance they leave to others, or of stripping those others of any right to benefit, seems unjustifiable. The individual’s will is always the first step same as for a house or any other property. Next the family claim wherever rights aren’t owned by third parties (record companies, publishing companies, management companies, etc. all of whom have paid an artist – and had their payment accepted – for a particular component of the rights over the works under discussion) There’s nothing to stop fan communities bidding for such rights and purchasing them of course but in the meantime the rights are defined by these agreements. Those stakeholders need to decide what they wish to do – do they even want the work involved in managing a legacy when posthumous rights are such amorphous and difficult legal constructs?

Many personal wills and inheritances are disputed or leave various parties dissatisfied – imagine how much more complicated this is when the inheritance under discussion consists of business rights, commercial shares, ongoing financial relationships rather than simply a house and its contents. The aftermath of the Sex Pistols, of the Beatles, of Elvis, of Hendrix – all were beset by years of legal wrangling before a cleaner approach could emerge without a fudge of arguments, writs and protests swamping the positive celebration of someone’s work. The resolution of this overhang of business seems to be crucial – in the case of Nirvana it caused a cessation of releases from the time of “From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah” in 1996 until the greatest hits and “You Know You’re Right” in 2002. The legal bedrock needs to be solid before a legacy can begin to address what fans want.

At this point – if a memory isn’t to fade – new material, new content, new information is needed and it needs to spark several reactions; newcomers who haven’t experienced the artist need to be provoked into being curious enough to learn about them or hear them; people who grew bored of them need to want to pick them up again; those who remain devoted need the least work really but still need to feel simultaneously interested and like there’s more to come. Flooding a market with product lessens the impact, creates over-familiarity, achieves little additional benefit for all the extra cost and effort involved – it’s a waste. It’s also inhuman, it takes no account of the fact that hearing a new live recording every couple years might remind one of what one loved about a band but hearing 100 live takes of the same song all at once just provokes disinterest. Releases must be managed to ensure warmth of feeling persists, that continued fandom is rewarded regularly, that interest is staggered to catch new age groups, that boredom and over-saturation doesn’t set in.

Legitimacy is also crucial. Elvis Presley’s reputation suffered mightily during his lifetime from cheap budget releases and an over-proliferation of repetitive live recordings. It took time after his death to pause, restore respectability to the catalogue and the perceived ownership and to proceed from there. The legacy of Jimi Hendrix had a similar challenge; while the first few Hendrix archive releases were appreciated the decisions being made by the mid-Seventies to overdub and re-make tracks meant the authenticity of the resulting recordings was increasingly in doubt. Again, it took a substantial reset – the acquisition of rights to his music by Hendrix’s family, the setting up of Experience Hendrix – before the credibility of the catalogue returned. Interference with recordings isn’t such a challenge in the case of some musical sources; Michael Jackson’s catalogue is a fair example – his vocal is deemed the crucial requirement so updating the backing tracks, updating the collaborators, tweaking the sound is all deemed (within reason) acceptable.

Over-saturation is always an issue. Tupac Shakur’s vast archive of studio vocal tracks left rich pickings for his record label (Death Row) and the business his mother set-up to manage his affairs. The deluge that followed over the decade after his death, unfortunately, exhausted much good will; two disc compilations ever two years were so lengthy they were tiring to listen to and exposed a lack of differentiation or development that might have been less obvious with slimmer releases; the choices made musically often seemed to the detriment of Tupac’s impact; side-bar releases (a live record, two volumes of remixes, various unofficial compilations of early material, the movie soundtrack, reissues) created a jumble in which it was hard to feel any new release was notable or special. All this material failed to quell the call from some quarters for ‘the original tapes’ to be released, or the sense that there was yet more to come – the fanatics still wanted more long after most people had stopped looking. By the time the Tupac campaign shriveled down to one disc releases (the Eminem-helmed release, the soundtrack, one final Tupac disc overloaded with collaborations) it seemed to be a response to dwindling material of quality rather than a decision based on paying attention to audiences.

Joy Division went down a similar – though slightly different path starting at an earlier stage. A well curated leftovers release, “Still”, hit right back in 1981 – a fine record at a peak of interest in the band. While that would seem to be a best practice (look at Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York” to see this in action) the subsequent development of the band’s legacy fell short. This was based on regular issues of ‘half heard’ compilations with the odd bonus thrown in – then a truly excellent box-set (Heart and Soul) which unfortunately made subsequent archive efforts look threadbare. At least the live shows were worthy of interest but sound quality issues are a heavy factor given Joy Division never made it to vast acclaim (and vast live recording budgets) during their lifetime as a band. It’s been a disjointed process. That issue of a lack of material impacted the Notorious BIG’s posthumous records – ultimately the guy didn’t record enough music to sustain a legacy though both his main albums are remarkable. The “Born Again” release required padding out with collaborations to make anything of the slim pickings of his vocals – “Duets” was even worse – the “Greatest Hits” was fair enough then the film soundtrack added next to nothing. Each made money, none really burnished credentials. Maybe hip hop just moves too fast for a legacy to ever last long – that’s a different question however.

Every back catalogue ends up dealing with the question of eking out a dwindling supply of material. Often this results in claims of exploitation of fans who end up paying in order to get hold of one, two tracks. The thirtieth anniversary “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” reissues kept it simple; deluxe containing a good quality live show, super-deluxe containing some (fairly well known) demos plus the supposedly long-lost and recently rediscovered studio version of “Belsen Was a Gas” with Johnny Rotten on vocals, plus various other ephemera. After thirty years such limited means seems acceptable. At some point there has to be a projection of how long an artist’s critical cachet will last and therefore how to stagger releases. Being able to release new live recordings and demo dribbles forever might be possible but once there’s a bare handful bothering to listen there’s no point. This question would seem to emerge sooner rather than later in most cases; how long was it worth holding back Tupac’s music? How long is it worth holding back Kurt Cobain’s music?

In the case of the Beatles’ Anthology reissues there was at least a good portfolio of practices, warm-ups and early takes to refer to which satisfied fans. The challenge here, however, was that their legacy had been swamped in legal action for so long that there’d be next to no attempt to develop it properly – it all came too late at the tale end of too many re-parceled sets of known songs. Expectations had reached extreme levels meaning Anthology couldn’t fail to underwhelm even with the ‘reunion’ songs included – waiting for decades to discover scratch efforts, having to parse warmed over rock n’ roll or edited together takes of whatever…Whereas a gradual release of material over the years might have kept interest alive without wounding anticipation, what happened was too much all at once everything was over and done with between November 1995 and October 1996. It was a failure of scheduling that put too much attention on why leftovers stay leftovers when a gentler approach could have pleased many people.

Without careful bundling, quality and substance become crucial. The remastered Led Zeppelin issues were a triumph of modernity – a facelift on old friends. The extras included, however, were of limited interest and limited divergence from the known songs. Issuing songs with only one verse from Michael Jackson while foregrounding his name as if it’s still his record rather than a stitched up compilation ends up an embarrassing failure of honest and fair description which, again, wears down good will (and therefore potential buyers.)

Where does this leave us with the Nirvana legacy? Well, in my ‘umble opinion, the last decade has actually been a really effective performance and there is credit due to the various parties involved. Perhaps that’s a controversial perspective but let me explain further…

The MTV Unplugged album was a huge success – it’s outsold “In Utero” and has done much to mellow perceptions of Kurt Cobain, to open doors to his music that Nirvana’s noisier aesthetic hadn’t necessarily permitted. The rapid-fire timing made absolute sense. The next steps – issuing the last work Cobain had been really committed to (Live! Tonight! Sold Out!) in 1995 as well as the singles box in some countries kept interest alive and plugged a hole given Nirvana hadn’t issued a live record or a visual recording at that point. While From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah was unsatisfying to many fanatics who were already gorging on live bootlegs it did provide a rapid-fire retort to the softer image of Unplugged and did no harm. The pause for the next few years could have been a challenge except it meant Nirvana’s reappearance occurred as a new generation discovered the band (take a look at the performance of most great artists and note most have a wilderness phase then rediscovery based less on quality of fresh output and more on new audiences after the generation that needed to react against it’s predecessors has moved on).

The Greatest Hits had the ‘golden ticket’ in the form of You Know You’re Right – there had to be a greatest hits at some point, it was a sensible reentry point (or starting point for some bands) and there wasn’t much debate on the choices made. It did what it said on the tin. The box-set struck a decent middleground – known b-sides, a slew of true unknowns, home demos, different versions, the DVD element. While fans gripe about the sound quality on some choices, that better versions existed elsewhere, it was still an extensive and pretty comprehensive entry. After this point Nirvana fans have had something to look forward on what is normally a two year cycle with DVDs and live recordings filling the hole until the anniversary releases came out.

The doubling up of album anniversaries and DVD releases has prevented over-saturation because the visual and the audio components are such separate entities. Time has been left in the schedule for people to yearn for something fresh each time. I think Montage of Heck’s release in 2015, two years after the In Utero anniversary campaign fills an appropriate hole and – again – adopts a multi-channel approach which prevents it clogging fans up or confusing them regarding what to choose. It also provides a narrative that gives legitimacy to the issue of Cobain’s more shredded and non-commercial pieces – I think it’s a clever move that will help deflect criticisms of its ropey nature. It’ll be appreciated as part of an attempt to show Cobain in a flawed and naturalistic light rather than as simply “the next archive release.”

The anniversary releases were, again, comprehensive mashups of the live and studio material that remains related to “Nevermind” and “In Utero” – it’s a shame there wasn’t a deeper look at the “Bleach” era but that release was relatively low-key by comparison to its successors and was no embarrassment. There’s been good logic behind each release, the exclusions and repetitions were kept to a minimum, it’s clear why the combinations of material used were put there. While some have queried the mixing efforts, or the absence of one or t’other song, those are minor complaints when judged against the wholesale rewriting of history that happened to someone like Hendrix, or the massively unsatisfied desires of Beatles fans or Led Zeppelin fans, or the threadbare results of the BIG effort. It’s been respectful, regular, neither gluttonous feast nor bone-thin famine.

The only missteps really have been “Sliver” in 2005 – a fairly pointless rehash of the box-set which really was open to accusations of cash-grab given the tagging on of extras only a year after the majority of the release had already been seen – plus the “Icon” greatest hits set that no one can figure out why it’s out there. That’s not bad for a twenty year old legacy that’s put so much material into the public space.

Is there more? Why yes. That’s the crucial element – there’s got to be more to keep things going, to keep the excitement. So sure, I’d like to hear Fecal Matter, Sound City Sappy, whatever someday…But I’ll wait. So far I’m pretty confident it’ll come because so far there’s always been something in the pipeline. It’s smart commerce and smart management and compared to the treatment of many artist’s work posthumously I have few complaints.


One thought on “Managing the Cobain Legacy – How Does One Create Lasting Memory and Appeal?”

  1. I agree that the releases since Cobain’s death have done a good job of keeping Nirvana alive in some respects. All the sets fleshed out that period for the band and almost each time provided the listener with something new. Even the cash grab “Sliver Best Of” had a few new tracks that weren’t on WTLO. We all want to hear those few things we’ve never heard (Sound City Sappy, ’94 basement demos etc) and I can’t really see why they haven’t been released yet since they had a perfect vehicle to release them but then again I guess they don’t want to drain the well completely.

    The two items I expected but really haven’t seen were more stand alone live concerts on dvd and a “Kurt Cobain at Home” type album. Krist has said there is a lot of video and it seems Kurt recorded a lot of cassette tapes. Like why hasn’t that great Old Age version been officially released? I was almost certain it would show up in Montage of Heck. Maybe the latter would be too much of a nitch market and wouldn’t sell to the numbers they’d like? I understand we probably won’t see another official Nirvana release for sometime given the history and all the big 20th anniversaries are over but a guy can still hope , right?

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