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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Some Celebrities Are Worth Much More Dead Than Alive

Some Celebrities Are Worth Much More Dead Than Alive

Presley's Graceland, Tennessee - Maha
Forbes’ Magazine publishes an annual list of the top earners among dead celebrities, who last year grossed $886m. Yves St Laurent came first, at $350m.

Yves St Laurent ‘earned’ the most of the dead celebrities last year, mainly through the sale of valuable paintings), and he beat Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley ($52m), Kurt Cobain ($50m) and Andy Warhol ($9m). However, it is perhaps Jackson who has the most potential to go on year after year into the future, his estate earning millions of dollars. It made nearly $100m in the first nine months after his death.

Kings of Pop Music

Cynics would describe death as a smart career move for the already rich and famous, especially those who have a cloud of controversy over their lives, or deaths, or both. Rumour still persists in the more extreme reaches of conspiracy theory, that neither Michael Jackson nor Elvis Presley is actually dead, but their demises were part of elaborate hoaxes to reverse the terminal decline their careers had entered, allowing them to escape lifestyles that had become intolerable.

Both were active in showbusiness when they died. Presley was still laying down songs and Jackson was rehearsing for an unbelievable 50 concerts in London when he died. Immediately, footage of the rehearsals for This Is It was released to a public eager to buy some small part of the 50-year-old man, attempting to recreate the physical sparkle of his earlier success.

When Elvis Presley died in August 1977, he is reported to have held around $5 million in his bank. By 2004, Forbes said he was worth at least $45 million and it is still rising. John Lennon took $9m last year; Theodore Geisel,(who created Dr Seuss) $12m; Albert Einstein, $18m; Heath Ledger, $20m; Aaron Spelling, $15m and Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen secured $6m apiece.

Jimi Hendrix

Another superstar who died in mysterious drug-related circumstances was electric guitar maestro, Jimi Hendrix. He was 27 and had established himself as a music business force on both sides of the Atlantic on the back of several single hits and three albums. However, since then, more than 40 albums have been released, with apparently more to follow.

The technique is not unique to Hendrix’ work. Sometimes using recordings that were rejected in the studio immediately they were cut, other times by digitally enhancing bad or illegally recorded live gigs, plus what must be a deal of contractual negotiations, they allow older fans to maintain collections of complete catalogues. This new material also speaks to younger generations, in Hendrix’ case, more tuned to synths and electronically-treated sound than raw, rock ‘n’ roll guitar or the psychedelic 60s.

Popularity Besides Money

The Q Score is a measurement of appeal and familiarity of a celebrity, TV show or business brand, widely used by US media, marketing and public relations companies. According to Market Evaluations, Inc, the likability factor of celebrities can increase dramatically after death, despite more negative lifetime perceptions.

Johnny Cash had a positive Q score of 19 before he died in September 2003; now it is around 33. The company believes that a controversial or unexplained angle on a celebrity death may also add some credibility in Q score, marketing terms.

Paintings by famous artists from Rembrandt to Monet, Picasso to Gauguin sell for millions, but the descendants get nothing. The estates of those who have recorded films, songs, and literature in their lifetimes stand a chance of earning while copyright on their works persists, and while they have a legacy that subsequent people want to buy into.

JM Barrie bequeathed all rights from his Peter Pan writing to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London. It was an act of generosity that has netted thousands from books, films and merchandising, but the copyright expired in 2007 in Europe, 70 years after his death and will soon follow in the UK.

As people live longer nowadays and as technology makes it ever harder to secure copyright in works of creative art, has the time come for a fresh global debate and legally-binding international agreement on who should benefit after an artist’s death and for how long?

First published on Suite 101, 7 April 2010.

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Photo above: Presley’s Graceland, Tennessee – Maha

Photo below: Outside Jackson’s Neverland Ranch – Mona Eshaiker

  • Outside Jackson's Neverland Ranch - Mona Eshaiker
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