Michael Jackson’s Musical Treasure Trove: Looted and Leaked

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Over the last week, a number of previously-unreleased Michael Jackson demos have found their way into the public domain, leaking online via media-sharing websites such as YouTube, MEGA and SoundCloud.

The newly-leaked tracks include Jackson’s work-in-progress demos of “Days In Gloucestershire“, “Hollywood Tonight” and “People Of The World,” plus an alternate interpretation of “The Way You Love Me” – a song which previously appeared on the King of Pop’s The Ultimate Collection box set in 2004 and Epic Records’ Michael album in 2010.

Reactions among Jackson fans have been mixed – about both the quality of the material, and the fact that it has been leaked in the first place.

In this article I will attempt to put the past week’s events into context and perspective, give some additional background information on the origins of the leaked material, and personally address where I stand on the issue. I will also touch on the use of Jackson’s unreleased music in Sony Mobile’s Xperia Z2 campaign, and the speculation regarding the impending release of a new album.

Regarding the unauthorised leaking of unpublished Michael Jackson material, I often use this analogy: If a new, unseen Picasso piece was discovered, how would it be unveiled to the world – if at all? Would someone take a snapshot or scan of the artwork and upload it to Instagram or Facebook to then share the link with their social network of friends online? I’d certainly like to think not. The likelihood is that, assuming the piece’s authenticity could be verified, it would be sold and either showcased and preserved in a museum, gallery or exhibition, or perhaps kept privately in someone’s personal art collection.

The parallels between Picasso and Jackson are many. Both men are arguably the most recognisable figures of the 20th century in their respective artistic fields. Picasso was highly conscious of his relevance and importance in the history of art, as was Jackson about his place in music, dance and entertainment history. Both kept copious handwritten notes about their work, and were highly selective and protective about which pieces would be seen by the public. Picasso was known to have placed bids on his own pieces at auction in order to retain personal possession of them, while Jackson frequently stated that his perfectionism meant he was never truly satisfied with anything he did.

That perfectionism also applied to the new album Jackson was working on at the time of his death – the very album that some of the recently leaked tracks were being developed by Jackson for.

“He’s taking his time on it and being extra, extra picky,” explained Ne-yo, who ultimately spent two years (2007 – 2009) writing and submitting ideas for the ill-fated album.

“If he doesn’t like something, he’ll explain to me why he doesn’t like it,” continued Ne-yo. “He’ll say, ‘I just think the melody could be better’ or ‘I think that a stronger lyric could go here.’ … He’s never told me he didn’t like something and not given me a reason as to why. This is going to be a big album for him, so he’s taking his time. We want to get the music right.”

However, as with most of the material Jackson worked on in the final years of his life – both alone and with others – no vocals were ever recorded on any of Ne-yo’s ideas.

Another artist who knows of Jackson’s perfectionism, and the limitations it had on his productivity, is Akon. He too was working on what would have been Jackson’s next album.

“He was never satisfied,” recalls Akon. “We passed up ideas that I know for a fact in my heart were smashes. He’d be like: ‘Nah, nah we’ve got to come up with something better!’ I’d be like: ‘Mike you can’t get no better than this – what do you mean?’ to which Michael would respond: ‘No, trust me. If we can create this, we can create better!’ And I promise you, as soon as we create something better than that, he’d say: ‘We can do better!’ So we could never do better, because his expectation was so high.”

“I think that was one of the main reasons why it took so long for him to create a project and for him to be happy with it; because he was so hard on himself and such a perfectionist to a point where no matter how incredible the record was, he believed it could get more incredible. Like, we never finished!”

“With me music was always fun. But with him it was a legacy, and a reputation, and a standard that he had to continually match or get beyond, because he had accomplished and done so much, to a point where he had to expand higher than where he was already at. He created a standard so high for himself that he could not see himself lose.”

Perfectionism aside, another thing that stood between Jackson and the completion and delivery of unreleased music on his preferred terms, timeframe and platform, was unauthorised leaks.

The last decade of Jackson’s career was plagued by leaks – some more prolific than others. A collection of unreleased songs and demos from both the ‘Thriller’ and ‘Dangerous’ album recording sessions became available online at different stages, as well as an assortment of other illegitimately shared tracks.

But perhaps the most damaging leaks of his career, and those that upset Jackson the most, were that of “Escape” in 2002 and “Hold My Hand” in 2008.

When “Escape” (a.k.a. “Xscape”) began circulating online, just fourteen months after the release of the ‘Invincible’ album, Jackson was said to be furious. So much so that he had his team issue takedown notices to any website sharing a link to download the track, and issued a statement discouraging fans from engaging in the piracy of his unreleased materials.

Jackson’s exact plans for “Escape” were never realised and have never been made completely clear. The song itself, a collaboration between Jackson and producer Rodney Jerkins, remains officially unreleased to this day. (Note: Since publishing this article, “Xscape” has been officially released by Epic Records and The Estate)

Fast-forward five years, and Jackson is preparing his first new album in seven years. “Hold My Hand,” one of only two completed collaborative efforts between Jackson and Akon (the other being “Wanna Be Startin’ Something 2008 from Thriller 25) was, according to Akon, set to be the lead single from the project.

Jackson was well-known for keeping his unreleased music projects under lock and key, sharing his material with a very select group of trusted friends and family. One of those privileged enough to hear the track before it leaked was his nephew, Taj Jackson.

“’Hold My Hand’ was the last song my uncle Michael ever played to me in person,” Taj remembers. “He was so proud of it. I’ll never forget that smile he had on his face as the song played through the speakers (in his room) at the Palms Hotel in Vegas. After the song was over, he asked me what I honestly thought of it. I told him it was a worldwide number one song and that it was going to be huge. He was so happy to hear that.”

“Mike came up with this brilliant marketing launch for the record,” recalls Akon. “You know, he’s the best at launching a record. He’d have the whole world paying attention in two minutes.”

But unfortunately for Jackson, and Akon, the song leaked prematurely online in June of 2008, preventing them from bringing the track to completion and derailing plans to release it as a single.

Following these leaks Jackson became wary of the potential security breaches that come with recording in public studios. This resulted in far less vocals being recorded during the final years of Jackson’s life, and far less time spent in actual recording studios, with collaborative sessions being moved to makeshift studios in houses, bungalows and hotel rooms more often than they had been in the past.

Since Jackson’s death on June 25, 2009 leaks have become a major problem for The Michael Jackson Estate and Sony Music/Epic Records. Within a fortnight of his passing a snippet of the song “A Place With No Name” had surfaced courtesy of TMZ. The complete track would later hit the internet. A snippet of Jackson’s collaboration with Lenny Kravitz, “Another Day,” leaked in early 2010, and by the end of the year a bunch of other songs including “Blue Gangster,” “Slave To The Rhythm,” and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are”  had all emerged online, free-of-charge, outside of officially sanctioned Michael Jackson releases.

More recently some of Jackson’s less-complete materials have hit the web, including “I Am A Loser” in September 2013 and now “Days In Gloucestershire,” “People Of The World,” “Hollywood Tonight,” and an alternate mix of “The Way You Love Me” – as previously mentioned in this article.

“People Of The World” is a song Jackson wrote and recorded a demo for in 1998. The song was written by Jackson for J-Friends, a Japanese recording group comprised of the existing groups Tokio, V6, and KinKi Kids. J-Friends was formed to raise funds for the education of children involved in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. On January 13, 1999 a complete version of the track was released by the group.

“The Way You Love Me” and “Hollywood Tonight” both originate from the early Invincible sessions, with re-mixed versions of both tracks released over a decade later on the Epic Records album Michael in December 2010.

“The Way You Love Me” was originally referred to as “Hanson” and was being co-written by Jackson and Brad Buxer as a demo for the group Hanson in 1998. (You know.. MMMBop!) Jackson, however, took too long to complete the demo, and the chance to present the song to Hanson had come and gone. So, he kept the track for himself. The version of “The Way You Love Me” that leaked this week is not a version that Jackson or his collaborative team had worked on during his life.

“The Way You Love Me,” “Days In Gloucestershire,” and a bunch of other previously-recorded unreleased tracks dating back as far as the 80s, including “Throwin’ Your Life Away” and “Don’t Be Messin’ Round”, were given to producer Neff-U in 2008 to see what direction he could take them in. Since then, a Bad-era version of “Don’t Be Messin’ Round” has appeared on the 25th anniversary re-issue of the Bad album.

With anticipation of a new album starting to build in the fan community, Sony has announced the advertising campaign for their new Xperia Z2 mobile phone. Front and centre in their debut video ad is a brand new remix of Jackson’s unreleased track “Slave To The Rhythm” – produced by Timbaland (see below).

Timbaland’s is the third different version of “Slave To The Rhythm” that fans have heard over the last three years. First, fans heard Tricky Stewart’s interpretation of the track. For reasons unknown, that version failed to make the Michael album in 2010. In August 2013 a fresh new version produced by Max Method featuring Justin Bieber’s vocals in a duet with Jackson hit the internet. The Jackson/Bieber version wound up on radio for a day or two, until the Estate denounced the track.

Despite having heard three separate versions of “Slave To The Rhythm” in as many years, Jackson’s fans are still yet to hear the original version of the track – the way the King of Pop himself last heard it. However, if Epic Records still intends on releasing the album it had in mind late last year, that might change – with both the remix and original versions set to be included.

But what do all these leaks mean for the new album? Will the fact that fans already possess the tracks that have leaked deter Epic Records and The Estate from including those tracks in the new album? Is there even any unreleased material with complete enough vocals that fans don’t already know about? Can we expect any surprises on the new album?

If history is anything to go by, the fact that things have been available to fans for quite some time won’t deter them at all. Of the ten tracks on the 2010 Michael album, one (“The Way You Love Me”) had been previously released on 2004’s The Ultimate Collection, one (“Hold My Hand”) had been leaked in full since 2008, one (“Another Day”) had been partially leaked since earlier that year and had also been previously-released by Lenny Kravitz under the title “Stormm” one (“Behind The Mask”) had been previously-released by both Eric Clapton and Greg Phillinganes, and the vocals on three (“Breaking News”, “Monster” and “Keep Your Head Up”) are deemed to be fake by Jackson’s entire family and the majority of Jackson-enthusiasts.

Aside from the vast number of already-leaked tracks, there are some items of interest that Jackson fans have not yet heard that do include complete vocals – like “She Was Lovin’ Me,” for example. Unfortunately for fans, however, that kind of material is edging closer and closer to extinction.

The harsh fact of the matter is that fans themselves are somewhat responsible for the lack of unheard material. When a song is leaked, most of the time it has leaked via a fan. It is then posted on fan sites, shared with fans, and downloaded by fans. Fans are the ones whose appetite craves unreleased Michael Jackson material. Fans are the ones who seek it out. And fans are the ones who leak it. Then, when an album comes out, fans are the first ones who complain that “we’ve heard half of this stuff before.”

In my personal opinion, these leaks are a big problem and I do not support them. To take it a step further, in my opinion, releasing these things at all is a problem. It just doesn’t sit well with me at all.

Sure, it’s nice to hear Michael’s unreleased songs and his work-in-progress demos. But that’s coming from a fan of the King of Pop with that previously-mentioned appetite for his material.

But what about how Michael Jackson feels? Michael Jackson the perfectionist, the man who always wanted to do better, to continue his legacy, to maintain his reputation, and to match or go beyond the personal standards he set for himself. Do we, the very people who claim to “love” Michael, care about that? I certainly do!

The reality of the situation is that Michael Jackson did not want us to hear this material in the state it was in when he died, or in any state not personally put under the microscope for him to dissect, perfect and approve. Now, that’s not to say Michael never wanted us to hear his new music – he clearly did! That’s why he was working so hard on it. But he never completed it to a standard in which he wanted us to experience it.

Michael Jackson did not work on “Hollywood Tonight” over the course of ten years, write additional verses and a bridge (that, unfortunately, he never got record), for Teddy Riley, someone who played absolutely no role in the song’s conception or evolution, to come in last minute and flip the entire track on it’s head while taking away all context and meaning that Jackson worked so hard to build within the track. But that’s exactly what happened.

I’ll revert back to the Picasso comparisons for one moment here. If an unseen Picasso draft or sketch was discovered, but it was only partially complete, would it be acceptable for one of today’s artists to come in, fill the gaps, choose the colours, the thickness of the brush strokes, the mood of the piece, the style, the types of paint used and “complete” the painting? No, it would absolutely not be acceptable.

Yet with Jackson’s art, this is happening all the time. In fact, many of us encourage it to happen out of our own personal greed-fuelled desires to obtain and cling to any minuscule iota of “Michael Jackson” material we have not yet looted.

I mentioned earlier in this article that in the case of a Picasso piece, it might be displayed in a gallery, a museum or an exhibition of some description. It certainly wouldn’t be uploaded via Instagram the way Jackson’s songs are leaked via YouTube.

So what is the solution?

If I believe Michael Jackson’s unpublished work should not be leaked, or even “officially” released, is there any way that I believe it would be appropriate in which to showcase this work to the public? Yes. There is. And it already exists.

Brad Sundberg was Michael Jackson’s longtime studio technical director. He made sure that Jackson was happy with the way his recording studios were set up, and that everything sounded perfect. And now, he’s taking his knowledge of Jackson’s standards and applying them to studio settings all over the world with his In The Studio With MJ seminars.

For me, this is the as close to a museum or a gallery as you can get – if not closer! And I believe this would be the most appropriate way for Michael Jackson’s unpublished materials to be showcased.

Now, Sundberg’s current seminars don’t completely eliminate the possibility of leaks and online file sharing. In fact, attendees of some of his recent seminars have betrayed his trust by secretly recording portions of his audiovisual presentation. As a consequence, there is a possibility that those recordings will make their way online. A couple of them already have! The implementation of a basic metal detector examination prior to entry (like at the airport) and the compulsory surrender of all electronic devices would certainly nip that issue in the bud for future seminars.

Okay, back to reality now.

In 2010 The Michael Jackson Estate signed a $250 million, 7-year, 10-project deal with Sony Music Entertainment, allowing the record label the exclusive rights to publish Jackson’s entire discography, including both previously-released and unreleased materials, until 2017. There is no way in hell they are going to stop publishing Jackson’s unreleased materials – especially while fans are more than happy to throw their money at them for it.

As a compromise, I’d simply urge fans to stop leaking previously-unpublished materials to the public. I’d also ask the record label and Estate to bring in the people that Jackson was working with – not random big shot producers who are strangers to the material. If Jackson left notes or instructions, follow those notes or instructions – don’t defy them they way you have in the past. And with everything you do, be diligent, be thorough, be transparent with fans, and provide as much background information as possible.

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Do you agree or disagree? Feedback and discussion is welcome below. Please keep in mind that this is simply an opinion piece.

Follow Damien Shields on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with Michael Jackson-related news.

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