After years of waiting, Aaliyah’s music will be released on digital streaming providers starting on August 20. Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson made a deal with EMPIRE to distribute the music for the late singer and others once signed to his label, Blackground Records.
What took so long? Family drama. Aaliyah’s mother controls the estate, but Aaliyah’s uncle (her mother’s brother) controls the music. The sibling’s relationship fell apart after Aaliyah passed. Their mutual grief, lack of communication, and delays from Hankerson have led to several false starts.
According to Billboard, Hankerson claims he moved forward after Aaliyah’s estate released a statement on social media in August 2020 about its discussions to release the music. Hankerson used that as his green light to move forward with EMPIRE. Aaliyah’s estate has refuted Hankerson’s claims and have implied that this EMPIRE release is an ‘unauthorized project,’ and further challenged Hankerson in a recent interview by Variety.
Indies making moves. Despite the family controversy, Aaliyah’s catalog is a big win for EMPIRE. Since the company launched in 2010, it has grown from an indie distributor to a record label with the ability to release a catalog for one of the most influential musicians of the past 25 years.
EMPIRE-Blackground is also a win for indie record labels. Many indies don’t have the capital to maximize the reach of their biggest artists. That’s one of the reasons indies have sold to Sony and other major labels. EMPIRE has a chance to prove it can maximize Aaliyah as well as a major record label can. If successful, it sends a strong signal for itself and the rest of the indie community. (note: EMPIRE has a distribution deal with Universal Music Group).
Posthumous struggles are the norm. Aaliyah’s streaming hold up was unfortunate, messy, but unsurprising. Estates rarely control the music of posthumous artists and often have misaligned incentives with those who do own the music. Plus, when musicians die unexpectedly, they are more likely to have unsettled estates and wills. The question marks creates tension for all parties involved.
David Bowie is one of the few whose estate is in great shape, but the late musician is was an outlier with his Bowie Bonds and his heads-up planning. For most, posthumous musician management is a shitshow. Unfortunately, the challenges may only grow given the increasing number of ways that estates, labels, and fans can have disputes over future projects.
Read more about Aaliyah’s music release and related controversy in Billboard, Variety, and in the 2016 Complex article.