CBC NEWS INTERVIEWS EB: Death stops the music but not the royalties

CBC News

Death stops the music but not the royalties

By Jon Hembrey

Published Jul 28, 2011

Dead artists and musicians can generate profits for decades.

By Jon Hembrey, CBC News Posted: Jul 28, 2011 5:29 PM ET Last Updated: Jul 28, 2011 5:29 PM ET

Dead celebrities can often exhibit an eerie pull on the world of the living, a cold dead hand reaching from the past and influencing events in the present.

The record sums fetched at auction for an original, one-of-a-kind work by Picasso or Jackson Pollock might seem obvious, but few may realize that recently departed modern artists — even musicians whose works are so easily copied these days — also rake in the cash.

The estates of dead celebrities can generate revenue – sometimes in the hundreds of millions of dollars – long after certain artists have sung their last note or penned their final sentence.

Figures released by Neilsen Soundscan Tuesday show British singer Amy Winehouse, who died of unknown causes last week, has become a music-selling machine.

Her 2006 album Back in Black will re-enter the Billboard album chart at No. 9 with 37,000 units sold in the U.S. last week, more than was sold over the last three years.

Winehouse could also have seven songs on the U.K.’s top-40 chart by next week, according to Britain’s Official Charts Company.

All that from a woman who only released two full-length albums in her brief 27 years.

Success depends on longevity

Of course, there is also the possibility that what gets released after an artist’s death is sub-par, thereby tarnishing the legacy of that person, as music critic John Aizlewood has pointed out.

But Joseph D. Schleimer, a lawyer from California, said there is usually a spike in sales immediately after an artist dies, which eventually slows.

“There is a tail-off, but in the long run it depends on whether their work is of ‘classic’ status,'” the co-chair of the entertainment law section of the Beverly Hills Bar Association said in an email. “John Lennon’s songs will be popular for centuries.”

This explains why such creative forces as Lennon and Elvis Presley continue to earn around $17 million and $60 million, respectively, each year, according to Forbes. But it is not just musicians who do well posthumously.

Both Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, who died in 1973, ($50 million) and cartoonist Charles Schulz, who died in 2000, ($33 million) have also consistently made the top ten.

The same goes for Albert Einstein, who generates some $10 million each year.

A controversial death can also draw a great deal of media buzz, pushing sales higher.

“When you get the artist that’s lived a full life and dies at 90 you don’t necessarily get the same media attention as the artist that dies at 27 in a hotel room and nobody understands why or what happened,” Reinbergs said.

A natural death, on the other hand, can sometimes be disastrous for long-term revenue.

“Did anybody notice when Artie Shaw died?” Schleimer asked, referring to the jazz musician popular in the early half of the 20th century.

“He was once as big as Frank Sinatra, but I’ll bet you never heard of him because he faded away and lived to a ripe old age,” he said.

Artists aren’t known for estate planning

Somewhat counterintuitively — and perhaps a little cynically — an artist’s death can actually generate more profit than when that person was alive, Reinbergs says.

“Some of these estates make more money than the artists would have made or was making, especially in the case of Michael Jackson, because the artist was the biggest liability,” he said.

In February, Reuters reported that recent revenues of the late King of Pop made it possible to pay down $159 million of the $400 million in debt Jackson left behind when he died in 2009.

“[The estate] no longer has the artist around spending more than he makes,” Reinbergs said.

However, time eventually catches up to everyone, including the still-profitable dead.

Estates generate revenue because the copyright on works of art gets passed on to relatives or organizations after death.

In Canada those rights expire 50 years after the living artist has expired. In the U.S., it’s 75 years.

“After the specified piece of time, [the work of art] then becomes a part of the public domain and the estate will no longer receive royalties for that,” said Betsy Chaly, director of marketing communications for the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada.

Determining who is worthy of a share and in what amount can lead to legal challenges from family and colleagues, particularly when the potential for profit is so huge and ownership rights may be in question.

Artists, after all, are not exactly known for their estate planning.

Top Earning Dead Musicians 2010 Forbes List