Within hours of her untimely death, Whitney Houston was fast on her way to becoming a hot commodity, joining the ranks of other famous artists who have achieved the dubious distinction of great commercial success beyond the grave.
Houston’s most famous song, I Will Always Love You, was the most downloaded single on iTunes the day after her death, sales spurred by fans such as the one who blogged that the Queen of Pop sang "the soundtrack to my life."
The demand for her singles and albums will only continue to soar in the days and weeks ahead, Theo Peridis, a professor of strategic management at York University, told CBC News in a phone interview Monday.
"It’s a very predictable pattern that happens with all famous artists. They become valuable commodities. If they were shares, you would see Bay Street buying them up," said Peridis.
"Fundamentally, it’s the realization that it’s the end of the artist’s productivity, that they won’t produce anything more, that sparks the buying frenzy."
Houston, 48, was found dead of unknown causes in a bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hilton on Saturday afternoon on the eve of the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
At the height of her career, from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, Houston had seven straight No.1 hit singles, making her one of the bestselling artists in the world.
She was a crossover artist who was also successful in movies, starring in The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale. With her roots in gospel music, Houston was considered the music industry’s golden girl who never relied on overt sexuality in her concerts.
But in the last decade, Houston struggled with drug and alcohol addictions and a tumultuous split from rapper Bobby Brown. It’s not clear whether drugs contributed to her untimely death. A coroner’s report on the cause of death likely won’t be available for weeks.
Loyal fan base with emotional link
Houston was no longer at the height of her fame when she died, nor did she have a cult following like that of Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley, said Peridis.
"Even though Whitney tried to make a comeback, it was disastrous. But she still has a huge loyal fan base that remember that great voice," he said. "So there is an emotional factor where everybody starts talking about what her music meant to them."
There is also a large market of collectors who buy an artist’s work based solely on future saleability, Peridis said.
Although Houston’s estate will swell from residual profits, it’s the folks who own the rights to her work — record producers and movie studios who will re-release her CDs and DVDs — that stand to gain the most from her death, said Peridis.
Houston may be in line to make Forbes magazine’s annual list of top-earning dead celebrities this year.
"The 15 people on our list earned a combined $366 million between October 2010 and October 2011, which just goes to show that death is not the end when it comes to celebrities," wrote Dorothy Pomerantz, a Forbes staff writer.
A new way for dead pop stars to earn big is a Cirque Du Soleil show featuring their music, she adds, with three of the top five on Forbes’ 2011 list launching them: Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour; Viva Elvis; and the Beatles Love.
Forbes' top five earners in 2011 include three who have been dead for decades:
- Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, who died at age 50 in 2009 of an overdose, made $170 million, largely from sales of his music generated by his own publishing company, Mijac Music and his stake in the Sony/ATV catalog.
- The King of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, took in $55 million with revenues from Graceland admissions, as well as licensing and merchandizing. Elvis died in 1977 at age 42 of a heart attack.
- Marilyn Monroe raked in $27 million. The 36-year-old actress died of an overdose in 1962. Authentic Brands Group bought the rights to Monroe’s estate last year. The company has used her image in an ad for J’Adore fragrance with Charlize Theron and is planning to launch Marilyn Monroe cafés.
- Cartoonist Charles Schulz, who died of cancer at age 77 in 2000, made $25 million. His famous Peanuts cartoon characters generate income from their 1,200 licensing agreements with Met-Life, Warner Home Video, ABC and Hallmark. A further boost in revenue is expected from the characters' move to the digital space.
- John Lennon made $12 million. The former Beatles singer was gunned down in December 1980 at age 40. The Beatles sold 1.6 million albums on iTunes in 2010, 10th highest of any musical act. The Lennon estate also earns royalties from licensing deals with Cisco and Mont Blanc.