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Death Sells: How Posthumous Careers Turn Musicians Into Gods
© Lenscap / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Death Sells: How Posthumous Careers Turn Musicians Into Gods

No matter how big you are, there’s only one way to go: down. But what when you’re underground? Death sells – and a posthumous career awaits.


Many artists rarely get the kind of exposure afforded by their own deaths. After passing, cult musicians like Joy Division, or even someone like David Bowie – surely the biggest cult artist of them all – received the kind of media coverage they’d never experienced while they were alive. Queen are another good example of a band who were huge when at their peak in, 1975-1979, but who became even more popular after Freddie Mercury died, in 1991. Clearly, death sells. Even if an artist’s music has deteriorated, their posthumous career gives them a newfound popularity. So why do artists reach a wider audience when death occurs?

Triggering memories

Though a large percentage of us are music lovers who follow with our own ears, the majority of listeners are told what to like and follow this rule, so when a musician’s death is on the news, it triggers a memory the average fan wants to explore. It is actually quite rare that someone will loyally follow an artist from childhood to pensionhood.

David Bowie’s 1983 tour marked a commercial peak for him; up to that point, though popular, he hadn’t played huge stadiums. He did during the Let’s Dance era, though: 45,000 at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh. He was massive. Many people who disliked him, or were disinterested before, went to see him. Unfortunately, when artists hit a peak there is only one way to go – and it is generally down.

Becoming an “icon”

This was the case for Bowie, Queen and many others. Bowie’s fallow period is well documented, and it wasn’t until at least ten years later that he returned to his loyal fans with quality material reminiscent of his past glories. A hit single brings exposure to people who only had an inkling of what you did – or still do – and invites them along to the party. Unfortunately, if your next record is not to their taste they very quickly move onto the next big thing, and so on. Bowie’s music for the last five years of his life wasn’t particularly commercial. It sold well enough to the faithful, but interest was nothing like during those Let’s Dance years. However, when he died and his face was splashed over the mainstream media, he became, like Kurt Cobain before him, what people call an “icon”. Everybody knew him. Accepted by society, and someone your parents liked, he was no longer a threat to normality.

It is purely the exposure following an artist’s death that sees their record sales soar. But why?

Posthumous careers

Johnny Cash is another case in point. Until 1994, when he performed on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, he was only loved by elderly men and women with memories of the good old days of country music. Johnny Cash was nervous about the gig – a lot of time had passed, and he didn’t know if he would be taken seriously as an artist by the crowd, most of whom were too young to remember his heyday. Thankfully, he was given a hero’s welcome and it’s still a joy to watch.

Cash’s Glastonbury performance was followed by the American Recordings albums which, produced by Rick Rubin, made him cool again – for all ages, not just the blue-rinse brigade. However, it wasn’t until his death, a few years later, that his records were being played in bars and record stores again. Only a few years earlier, Cash’s record company, Columbia, were talking about dropping him because he was uncool and made minimal sales, thus not proving commercially viable. As somebody said at the time, “Johnny built the Columbia record company with sales of his records in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and here they are dumping him!” It can be a cruel industry, though Cash was eventually awarded the love and respect he deserved from the world’s public and went out on a high.

Many artists who don’t make it to Cash’s age and die prematurely – among them the tragically young artists that make up the “27 Club”, like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse – see their back catalogues begin to sell again, but to a new kind of fan: one who never really paid much attention when these artists were alive, but who can now avoid the revolution and quietly participate in their own little counterculture.

Death sells

What is it that motivates people to go out and buy the music of an artist they had paid little attention to before? Having tried to answer this question, the conclusion is: it’s safer when they are gone. Their music appeals to the masses because it reaches them through the kind of exposure not afforded to these artists when they were still alive. The public’s fickleness can be seen throughout the decades: one minute they are your biggest fan, then the next they’re gone.

One thing is for certain: your popularity grows immeasurably when you depart this planet altogether.

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