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Gone But Not Forgotten: Post-Mortem Success in Music

Death is the nature of life. The passing of a popular musical artist is, it seems, a motivating factor for a significant surge in record sales. Hearts around the world recently filled with sorrow and devastation upon learning of Amy Winehouses death on July 23. Since then, sales of her music have soared.

The world was shaken in much the same way on June 25, 2009, by the death of Michael Jackson. Within hours of the news breaking, his music began selling at an especially rapid pace. According to the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph, on the day of his death, both Amazon.com and U.K. retailer HMV reported a significant rise in record sales. On July 1, 2009, The New York Times reported three albums in particular — Thriller, along with two greatest hits compilations, Michael Jackson Number Ones and The Essential Michael Jackson — brought big numbers to the table, combining for a total of 422,000 copies sold in the week following his death.

Now, we see the same pattern re-occurring in the wake of Amy Winehouse’s death. Her albums are once again in high demand both on retail shelves and at digital outlets. This pattern is by no means new, however.

For example, the BBC has reported that 12 days after John Lennon’s murder on December 8, 1980, the former Beatle’s song, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” topped the U.K. Singles charts. Others cases to consider are of Nirvana and The Notorious B.I.G.: In the week following Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, sales of Nirvana’s albums totalled 777,000 copies, a boost of over 150 percent. And Biggie’s album, Life After Death, which had already been scheduled for release when the rapper was killed, ultimately sold 689,000 copies in its first week on the market.

One can’t help but wonder what inspires such post-mortem sales surges. Do consumers attach a new-found sentimental value to the deceased artist’s music? Is it a matter of them feeling guilty for not having paid enough attention to the artist before? Are they just buying the music in order to understand what the big deal was all along?

Both of Winehouse’s studio albums are currently represented on the iTunes 200 charts, with Back To Black at number 18 and her debut LP, Frank, at number 94. On the Amazon.com Top 20 Album Chart, Back To Black is at number two.

Why do some people only appreciate an artist’s contribution to music after he or she has died?

“The death of the artist usually draws heavy media coverage,” Eb Rainbergs, a lawyer in the entertainment business, explained recently to CBC News, “which either rekindles a fan’s interest or sends others on a shopping spree to see what made that person so well liked in the first place.”

Even though the music industry plays a major role in this selling game, it’s not the only one to consider. Other industries — those of film, television, and video games, among others — produce merchandise and memorabilia that generates profits. Whether it’s in the form of CDs, MP3s, concert films, biographies, documentaries or t-shirts, as loyal fans we almost see it as a duty to purchase everything that bears the name of a late musician we so idolize. It’s a way of denying the truth — to accept that the artist is gone.

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