Dead Music Stars Rake in the Big Bucks
By Tricia Romano Posted Oct 28th 2009 09:46PM
Dead music stars still have major drawing power. Michael Jackson's posthumous documentary and CD 'This Is It' is released this week, and if history is any guide, his estate stands to make a lot of money. Since his death in June, 9 million Jackson albums have been sold -- which means he's already beaten John Lennon and Elvis Presley in his fourth act.
Actors like Marilyn Monroe and Heath Ledger also earned a whopping amount of money after they died. In a dead celebrity shocker, Forbes just announced its list for 2009, with deceased fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent topping the dead celebs at $350 million. (They auctioned off his estate, which contained all his fancy stuff-art, furniture, and clothing.)
MJ debuted at number 3, and the year isn't even done.
Michaelangelo Matos, who's written for Rolling Stone and Spin, says of the post-death sales bump: "This goes back quite a ways in music. You can go all the way back to Hank Williams. He died on New Year's 1952-3, and his sales skyrocketed after his death."
Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield, who writes the Pop Life column, adds: "MJ hasn't had a new record that anyone cared about in years, and it's hard to imagine people would care about his new performances if he were still alive. When an artist dies suddenly, and fans have mass grief, they want to hear the music as part of the mourning process. But with MJ, it's almost like people reconnected with music they'd forgotten how much they loved."
We take a closer look at some artists who've gotten even bigger after they entered the big house in the sky. Top dead music stars are:
After Jackson died this year, everyone rushed to buy his old records. Interestingly, it was the compilation, Number Ones that tallied the most sales in the week following his death -- not 'Thriller.'
"Nostalgia is much of it," says Matos. "Some of it is also changing media: people who abandoned their cassettes or LPs or even CDs and didn't replace their copies of 'Off the Wall' and 'Thriller' will seize the opportunity to remember. But it's part of a public act of grieving, too."
MJ's already expected to move 300,000 copies through the end of the week.
"Until now, I think Elvis had the record for the biggest posthumous publicity bump, but death didn't make people buy Elvis records the way it makes people buy MJ records," says Sheffield. "I don't think there's been anything like this before. No pop star's death has had this kind of impact on the public's appetite to hear his music."
According to Forbes, in 2008, Presley was still the King. Last year he topped the magazine's list of Dead Celebrities, bringing in $52 million on the 30th anniversary of his death, a feat he's managed most of the years they've done their survey. (All the Elvis memorabilia, plus visits to Graceland, help boost Presley.) This year, he came in fourth on the list -- making a measly $55 million.
"His catalog is enormous and has never stopped selling," says Matos.
Presley's dominance might only be toppled in the future by a few megastars, he says. "If Madonna or Prince were to keel over tomorrow it might spur similar reactions -- they were as defining, generationally, as Michael was, and are only in their early 50s. "
After he shot himself at age 27, Kurt Cobain's mom infamously said: "Now, he's gone and joined that stupid club." The Nirvana frontman belongs to another exclusive club: that of dead celebrities whose records hit number one. 'MTV: Unplugged in New York' and 'From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah' both debuted at the top. Since his death, Cobain's estate earned $50 million in 2006 alone, putting him above the King on the Forbes list that year of dead music stars.
The Beatle has had a great run in the afterlife. After being unceremoniously shot by Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's career experienced a resurgence. His comeback record, 'Double Fantasy,' which featured his wife Yoko Ono, was released a month before he was killed. Prior to his death, 'Fantasy' only reached number 11 on the charts; after his death, it was number one in the U.S. for 8 weeks straight. It went on to sell three million copies, paling in comparison to other posthumous releases. However, Lennon was a critical success: the record went on to win a Grammy for Album of the Year and Lennon was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist.
If you were in college in the 80s or 90s (and even in the aughts), chances are if you bought a reggae CD, it was Bob Marley's 'Legend.' The record is a classic: it contained the eternal hits, 'No Woman, No Cry,' 'I Shot the Sheriff,' and 'One Love.' The collection -- released three years after his death from cancer in 1981 -- has sold over 25 million copies worldwide. His sales were so strong, that he placed ninth on Forbes Top Earners list of Dead Celebrities in 2004.
Biggie Smalls' double album, 'Life After Death,' sold 690,000 copies the week after he was killed. His two singles, 'Hypnotize' and 'Mo Money Mo Problems' also reached the top of the charts, a first for a non-living artist. The record went on to sell ten million copies and received the distinction of being certified diamond by the RIAA in 2000.
Tupac Shakur released more records as a dead man than he did when he was alive. Two of his posthumous records went to number one -- they were made possible by the hundreds of tracks Tupac left in his wake. One of his albums, 'The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory' (under his other nom de dic, Makaveli), recorded in seven days and released just two months after he was shot, sold over 7 million in the U.S and 28 million worldwide In 2003, he pulled in a cool $12 mil.
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