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Friday, March 2, 2012

Why Do Artists' Sales Increase So Much After They Die?

Posted By on Fri, Mar 2, 2012 at 8:06 AM

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This week, Whitney Houston became the first female artist to have three albums in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart at one time. In the two and a half weeks following her death, Whitney sold 2.7 million songs and 668,000 albums -- a massive increase. There's no doubt that if she were still with us, Whitney would have always sold records. But like this? It's extremely doubtful. So what is it that compels people to rush out and buy the music of recently deceased artists? Why is there always a sudden spike in sales? 

When Amy Winehouse's sales went up after her horribly premature death last summer, it all felt a little voyeuristic. The day her death was announced, sales of Winehouse's albums increased 37-fold -- in one day! It was immediate and it was obvious and it was mostly focused around her Back To Black album.

The remarkable thing in Winehouse's case was that it had been less than five years since Back To Black was released to great fanfare and critical acclaim. It's unlikely that the people who had a genuine love for Amy and her music from the get-go would have lost her albums between the time they came out and the time of her death. So who was responsible for the sales spike?

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It's not like everyone and their mother didn't know while Amy Winehouse was alive that she was a tortured soul. The tabloids were awash with sordid and graphic tales of her alcohol and substance abuse problems for years prior to her death. So why didn't the voyeurs rush out and buy her records when she was running around London barefoot and bloody?

Well, when a celebrity is still alive and in a mess, it's okay to make jokes. After they've died from the very problems everyone's been laughing at, the public is more likely to step back, wonder what was wrong, and take the issues more seriously. Some people perhaps buy the music out of guilt for all those inappropriate jokes, but most, truth be told, are probably just looky-loos, eager to find out what really happened to the star in question (probably the most obvious other case of this is Kurt Cobain).

Michael Jackson's huge sales increase following his death in 2009 was probably for different reasons. The three best-selling albums in the country the week after Jackson died were all made by him (Number Ones, The Essential Michael Jackson and Thriller). His sales increased 40-fold in the first seven days.

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But it would seem that while people rushed to buy Amy Winehouse records after she died to know more about her troubles, people purchased Jackson's music to forget about his. The singer's death gave people the opportunity to suppress the memories of the court cases, the controversies, the eccentricities -- all of which had marred his image in his final years -- and just enjoy the music so many millions had treasured before things got crazy.

In death, it seemed, no one wanted to talk about Michael Jackson's problems anymore, they just wanted to look back on his incredible legacy and enjoy it. And since the people who loved his music in the '80s probably got it on formats that are now obsolete, buying his Jackson's records again made some sense.

Whatever the motivation behind the spike in sales, the death of any beloved star who may have dropped off the radar, or fallen out of favor, in their final years, is probably the most effective advertising campaign on Earth. All of a sudden, the music of the deceased is all over our televisions and radios again, as it was at the peak of their successes. Those serious and heartfelt obits reminding us of an artist's greatness are bound to boost record sales -- as they no doubt will this week for The Monkees, following the sad death of Davy Jones on Wednesday.

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The sales increase that always comes following the death of a beloved musician is definitely a weird phenomenon. And one that both record companies and random opportunists (like the guys selling T-shirts on the route to Whitney Houston's funeral) can be all too ready to exploit. With the artist's dignity at stake -- and given that voyeurism is likely a primary interest -- it's fair to say that those extra sales sometimes contribute to a dehumanization of the person that just passed on. It's good to remember stars we've loved, and it's great to pay tribute to them and their music. But crazed consumerism isn't always the best way to do so.


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