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Dead Can Sell

Although Elvis Presley died a quarter of a century ago this year, he still generates the kind of cash flow that many companies and performers would envy. According to Forbes, last year alone, the King earned $37 million, putting him at the top of the “Earnings from the Crypt” list. The anniversary of the King’s death has been accompanied by a barrage of posthumous marketing unmatched by even the bombastic record releases of major music stars. This year’s surprise was Elvis’s first number-one single since 1977. “A Little Less Conversation,” remixed by Dutch DJ JXL for a Nike ad, created a hit from an obscure 1968 track, which failed to chart. For the King and for many deceased celebrities, death has been a lucrative career move.

The opportunities for generating income from unreleased tracks and licensed images ensure that the estates of these deceased celebrities are well endowed. For example, Tupac Shakur had recorded 200 unreleased tracks at the time he was murdered, and has since put out more albums dead than alive. Last year, he sold 2.7 million albums and earned an estimated $7 million. Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strips, raked in $28 million from licensing images for advertisements and copyrights on movies and books. Memorable faces of eternal youth such as that of Marilyn Monroe or James Dean are some of the most consistently profitable cash cows yielding a cool $5-7 million a year.

Generating cash is as much about timing as it is the availability of good material. Many successes are simply opportunistic. For example, a Billboard.com reader poll revealed that consumers hear so much about a recently deceased musician that they buy the album to see what all the hype is about. Morbid as it sounds, record companies profit from the mass awareness and advertising from the death of a star. Generally, when an artist dies, there is not a lot of forthcoming work and scarcity of material can motivate fans to buy records from the dead.

Sometimes the money comes in later at a more ripe time. Trends often look to the past in a nostalgic way, creating the opportunity for the estates of dead celebrities to cash in on old images that evoke a “retro” spirit. Strong brand management can ensure successful revival of past material consistently into the future. The recent proliferation of Humphrey Bogart images from “Casablanca,” for example, evokes wartime feelings and reflects the US’s strong sense of right and wrong then during WWII and now during the war on terrorism.

The ability to do all this is predicated on an inherited “right of publicity” that is transferable to the stars’ heirs. The right of publicity lasts for 100 years after a celebrity’s death, which is why Mark Twain (who died in 1910) is today as rich as other distinguished dead people as Babe Ruth, Buddy Holly, Malcolm X and Princess Diana. Some enterprising pioneers have even extended this concept to embrace celebrities who are entirely fictionalized like “Zorro.”

Stars should forget about insurance. They should just live it up, die young, and leave their heirs some good material to sell after they are gone. Death has its unpleasant aspects, but for some it can also be a great career move.

November 18, 2002
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