As I was lamenting the fact that Stevie Wonder produced something like 200 unreleased songs in his Songs in the Key of Life sessions, I was pointed to (hat tip: @andrewhickey.bsky.social) a European Union copyright law that might light a fire under him to get them released.
Songs in the Key of Life isn't just my favorite album of all time, it may be my favorite piece of art in any medium. I've listened to it countless times, every single year since it was released in 1976; it's a part of my life.
The album was produced during a 2.5 year period during which collaborators were gobsmacked at the productivity, creativity, and endurance of Wonder. He would write and record songs, sometimes for 48 hours straight, often by himself, playing all instruments, while a rotating army of top musicians waited, sleeping in the studio in case they were called upon by Wonder.
Engineer John Fischbach estimates that Wonder recorded over 200 songs during this time, but only 21 made it onto the double (plus) album.
It's unclear whether all of those 200 songs were fully completed, and it's unclear whether any parts of the songs were cannibalized for other Stevie Wonder songs, on that album or subsequent ones. But it seems clear that there are many songs at near or full completion that were recorded by Wonder, at the very peak of his powers, in a manic state of creativity, that have never seen the light of day.
A snippet of one unreleased song from these sessions has tantalizingly been leaked, "So Much in Love," and it only serves to confirm the quality of his unreleased output.
It's killed me that all this fantastic, fascinating music is locked away in a vault, probably forever.
But perhaps some hope can be found in a European Union copyright law that has been dubbed "Use It or Lose It."
In 2011, the EU extended copyright protection for sound recordings from 50 to 70 years. But recordings are only entitled to the 20-year extension if they are offered for sale before the original 50-year term expires. So if there is a recording that has never been offered for sale to the public, 50 years after its creation it becomes public domain in EU countries, with no copyright protection.
But if it's been offered for sale during that initial 50-year period, it gets an additional 20 years of protection. This has apparently been the impetus behind a lot of the box-set releases musicians have released recently. Before unreleased songs lapse into the public domain in the EU, they are offered for sale in order to get 20 more years of protection.
In 2013, Bob Dylan released only 100 copies of a CD box-set of unreleased recordings, 50th Anniversary Collection, in order to extend their EU copyright. That same year the albums The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963, The Big Beat 1963 by the Beach Boys, and Motown: Unreleased 1963 were offered for sale on digital music stores.
Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Genesis, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, and The Who are among other recording artists that have released songs seemingly to extend their EU copyright.
The 50-year EU copyright protection for the songs Wonder recorded during the 1974-1976 Songs in the Key of Life sessions is about to begin expiring. Is it possible Wonder will want to extend that protection for twenty years by giving the world the incredible gift of these songs?