As we all mourn the death of Whitney Houston, it is hard to miss the fact that her music is flying off the physical and virtual shelves. As reported in the New York Times, her album sales increased 60-fold the day after news of her death spread.Spotify reported that her songs were streamed 2.4 million times between Saturday, the day she died, and Sunday. With 64,000 sales, her greatest hits album reached number 6 on Billboard’s compared with sales of only 600 the week before. Her hit song, I Will Always Love You is currently at number one on the iTunes chart.
The week after Michael Jackson died there was a 40-fold increase in sales of his albums, and renewed interest in just about anything related to his life and death. As a result, AEG turned the footage of concert rehearsals into a movie, which became the highest grossing concert movie in history.
The big spike in the popularity of world-renowned celebrities after they die causes many to wonder why this happens. There are a number of reasons.
When a major celebrity passes away, the news media focuses considerable attention on their death, life, the funeral and the aftermath. This media attention promotes the celebrity’s work to several audiences – (1) fans that knew and admired the celebrity, (2) those that may have heard of the celebrity but who are not familiar with their work, and (3) those that are being introduced for the first time. This promotion generates renewed interest in the work of the celebrity, and many end up buying copies of songs, movies, videos, writings, and related memorabilia. This is certainly what has been happening since the passing of Ms. Houston.
Timing of Events
This media focus was intensified by the fact that Ms. Houston’s death at the age of 48 was a shock and occurred as the music industry was getting ready to celebrate the Grammy Awards. As a result, some of the focus shifted from current music stars that were nominated for a Grammy award, to Whitney’s untimely death. Following the Grammy Awards, her funeral, while limited to family and friends, was televised and replayed in the news media. These events, occurring over a short period of time, concentrated attention on her life and professional career.
When celebrities die at a young age from unnatural causes, it tends to sear their images into the minds of the public, cause their brand values grow to epic proportions, and create an enhanced mythology about their lives. In addition to Whitney, notable examples of stars that died before their time include…
- Buddy Holly – aeroplane crash at 22
- James Dean – car accident at 24
- Tupac Shakur – gun shot at 25
- Janis Joplin – drug overdose at 27
- Jimmy Hendrix – drug overdose at 27
- Jim Morrison – drug overdose at 27
- Heath Ledger – drug overdose at 28
- Rudolph Valentino – peritonitis at 31
- Marilyn Monroe – drug overdose at 36
- Bob Marley – cancer at 36
- John Lennon – gun shot at 40
- Elvis Presley – drug overdose at 42
- Natalie Wood – drowning at 43
- Michael Jackson – drug overdose at 50
Collectors anticipate that original works and possessions of celebrities will go up in value after they die. Their collection efforts tend to bid up the price and attract attention from others that also want to be part of the experience. The limited supply of celebrity-branded items cause them to become more valuable as more people bid for fewer articles.
Scarcity and uniqueness from a limited body of work
What further enhances the brand value of dead celebrities is that the public realises that they will not be adding more material to their body of work. This makes each of their songs, videos, movies, writings, and possessions that more unique and valuable. Since there is no more present or future, all that is left is the past, and the past becomes historic and more desirable.
The brand earning power ranking of dead celebrities
Every year, Forbes ranks the earning power of dead celebrities. The latest available data is for 2011. For the second year in a row, Michael Jackson heads the list of the top earning dead celebrities with earnings $170 million in 2011. Rounding out the top 15 are celebrities that have become iconic. In order, they are Elvis Presley ($55 million), Marilyn Monroe ($27 million), Charles Shultz ($25 million), John Lennon ($12 million), Elizabeth Taylor ($12 million), Albert Einstein ($10 million), Theodor Geisel (creator of Dr. Seuss $9 million), Jimi Hendrix ($7 million), Stieg Larsson (author of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo $7 million), Steve McQueen ($7 million), Richard Rodgers ($7 million), George Harrison ($6 million), Bettie Page (pin up girl $6 million), and Andy Warhol ($6 million).
The silver, or in some cases, platinum lining
While it is painful to lose favourite celebrities, fans can rest assured that celebrity brands will live. Their movies, songs, videos, writings, homes, museums, and stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame will keep them alive – frozen in time at a time when most were young, vibrant, and successful. As the Kinks say in one of their hit songs, “Celluloid heroes never feel any pain, and celluloid heroes never really die.” Even so, let’s hope that Whitney Houston and all the others rest in peace.
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