“Fame after death / Is the noblest of goals.” (“Beowulf” lines 1388–1389)
That’s all well and good, Beowulf, but what about sales after death?
David Bowie’s passing on Sunday (Jan. 10) brought about two, almost sequential, results. First came the outpouring of messages of grief, shock and tribute on social media from fellow artists and fans alike. Within 12 hours after the news broke, reports The New York Times, 35 million people had 100 million interactions about the iconic musician, actor, producer — and even Internet pioneer — on Facebook. The NYT piece added that, as of yesterday (Jan. 13), the official announcement of Bowie’s death on his Facebook page had received more than 407,000 likes (utterly incongruous, the practice of expressing sadness by “liking” a death — fix that, Facebook) and over 387,000 shares.
Overlapping with the initial wave of public (read: Internet-based) mourning for the loss of the widely influential artist and the next, more significant result were some unintended (but nonetheless embarrassing) journalistic gaffes — namely, the print edition of The New York Times running a story that opened with the line, “It’s a good time to be David Bowie” — and less forgivable, bald-faced attempts at self-promotion poorly disguised as tributes to the legend. Crocs managed to look even less stylish than usual with a since-deleted (but preserved by others) in memoriam tweet, while the 1990s ska-pop band Smash Mouth — having been most recently seen getting attacked by loaves of bread — dusted off and posted on Soundcloud a 2006 cover of “Under Pressure” that no one remembered or asked for (never mind the fact that “Under Pressure” is really a Queen song featuring David Bowie).
The VP of marketing at something called Ovation LLC didn’t even attempt to hide his mercenary intentions tied to Bowie’s passing, the day after which he posted to LinkedIn a story titled, “How We Used David Bowie to Drive Our Marketing Campaign.” (We are declining to link to the image capture of the since-deleted post, given that the Twitter user who shared it added a rather salty comment of his own.)
This brings us to the second major outcome to occur in the immediate wake of David Bowie’s death, which raises both questions about consumer behavior and the ethical gray area of retailers profiting from a celebrated artist’s passing.
On Monday (Jan. 11), the day after he died, David Bowie’s album “Blackstar” — which had been released only two days prior to his death (Friday, Jan. 8, his 69th birthday) — leapt to the top position on iTunes’ sales chart, according to Idolator. The outlet went on to report that in the number two spot was another Bowie album, a greatest hits compilation titled “Best of Bowie.” “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” was at number four. “Hunky Dory” climbed to number six; “The Best Of David Bowie 1969/1974” came in at number 11; “Let’s Dance” was at number 12.
And it didn’t stop there. All told, on that single day, 15 of David Bowie’s albums were among the top 40 sellers on iTunes. That’s not even accounting for the sales of physical copies of his albums: Idolator also shares that, on Jan. 11, the CD version of “Blackstar” was the top seller on Amazon, while the vinyl edition was in second position on the same chart; two Bowie compilation albums were also in the top 10.
Meanwhile, Spotify told Reuters that streams of Bowie’s music were up 2,700 percent on Jan. 11.
With the exception of “Blackstar,” we’re talking about a series of products that covered a 46-year span in Bowie’s (obviously lengthy and prolific) career; each has been available in some format since the day it was released and available digitally for the better part of the present century.
How could it be, then, that so many people were only just getting around to purchasing David Bowie’s music on the day after his death?
Such a retail phenomenon is far from unique to Bowie’s case. Just last month, the death of Scott Weiland led to an increase in sales (and streams) of singles and albums from his two bands, Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver. The same thing occurred with Lou Reed’s music following his death in 2013 and in the case of George Jones, earlier that same year. Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson … the list of musical artists whose bodies of work found new life in the world immediately following their departures from it is virtually endless.
For crying out loud, seven out of Tupac Shakur’s 11 platinum albums were released posthumously.
The fact is: When an artist in any commercially viable field — musicians, actors, authors — dies, it is likely to result in a renewed interest (in some cases, a greater interest than ever existed in their lifespans) by consumers in their output. And that leads to the owners of that output — sometimes family members, often times not — to put it bluntly, directly profiting from death.
“It’s massive business,” Kelvyn Gardner, U.K. managing director of the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA), the global trade body for rights licensing, told The Guardian in 2014. “In the U.S., there are whole agencies that have grown up to represent deceased celebrities, and they’ve made substantial business doing it.”
A 2014 study, “Death-Related Publicity as Informational Advertising: Evidence from the Music Industry,” concluded that an artist’s album sales increase by an average of 54.1 percent following his or her death. The research bore out that what makes the passing of an artist a grim, but profitable, retail business model is, by and large, two subsets of consumers: those motivated by nostalgia and those made curious by the publicity that commonly surrounds the loss of a famous person.
Stated Leif Brandes, one of the three authors of the study: “Our research indicates death-related publicity serves primarily as informational advertising that informs new customers. However, complementary survey evidence reveals that death-related publicity also triggers considerable nostalgic reactions and personal mortality salience — a feeling of their own mortality — from existing record-owners.”
In examining consumer behavior in the aftermath of an artist’s death, Brandes observed: “Four interesting differences emerge across new and existing customers. First, and most importantly, new customers are more likely to buy items about which they did not know before the artist’s death. Second, new customers are more likely to buy items, because they want to finally own the artist’s best work. Third, existing customers showed stronger emotional reactions to news about the artist’s death and were more often reminded about their own mortality.”
There’s the kicker, in a sense: Consumers experience an increased interest in artists — and spend money to listen to, watch or read their work — after those artists die because their very deaths remind the consumers, to varying degrees of awareness, that their own time to experience all that life has to offer is limited.
It’s difficult, then, to fault retailers for being on the money-receiving end of those death-inspired transactions because, in the big picture, everybody involved is in the same boat. For merchants to consciously plan their entire business strategies, by contrast, around highly publicized deaths would not only be a flimsy model, it would likely also make them murder suspects at some point. Otherwise, live and let live (and buy and sell accordingly).
It might seem odd to state so soon after his death, but not every artist can be as lucky as David Bowie, whose work brought him fame (and, yes, fortune) in life and has now also achieved the “noble goal” spoken of by Beowulf — the closest any person can come to immortality.
You know who probably wouldn’t mind having that? The person that wrote “Beowulf.” Nobody knows who that is.