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Analysing artists’ posthumous popularity spike

by Jacob Carey October 30, 2018
Analysing artists’ posthumous popularity spike

Why musicians peak after they fall

A 1997 article from The Washington Post titled “Death Roars Up the Charts” began with three simple words: Death sells records. More than 20 years later, death is, indeed, still selling records.

Coincidentally, the subject matter of that Washington Post article became a topic of discussion earlier this month. Having recently won a lawsuit against Entertainment One, the parent company of Death Row Records, the late Tupac Shakur’s estate has now gained all legal rights to the rapper’s previously unreleased music. As a result, the estate plans to release at least two posthumous albums by 2Pac. These will thus be the rapper’s seventh and eighth posthumous studio albums, officially making his album catalogue after death double that of when he was alive. It could be speculated that these releases will put “all eyez” back on the late rapper.

Music sales after death are nothing new to the industry, and labels are unlikely to back down from capitalizing on them any time soon. Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death album remained at the top of Billboard charts for three weeks following its release after the New York rapper’s death in 1997. Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n’ Roll, reportedly sold more than 200 million copies of his albums in the four months following his death. However, lack of technology made these statistics harder to calculate back then. Nowadays, we are afforded better insight into how an artist’s death directly impacts their sales and streaming in real-time. Late Florida rapper XXXTentacion was beginning to secure his spot in the rap world when he was gunned down last June. As the hip hop community around the world mourned the loss, X’s recent ? album jumped from 24th to third spot on the Billboard 200 albums while its lead single, “Sad!,” went from 52nd to first in the Billboard Hot 100 singles and broke Spotify’s single-day streaming record with 10.4 million listens. Similarly, the recent loss of Mac Miller resulted in his newest album, Swimming, shooting to #1 on Apple Music despite previously only peaking at #3. The Pittsburgh rapper went on to occupy all five spots of Apple Music’s top video charts.

With all these records being broken and heights being reached only after their demise, we must ask ourselves: why?

The first answer that comes to mind is nostalgia. When artists pass away, loyal fans commemorate them in the best way they can: by listening to their music. The sudden realization that this musician will never go on tour again and never record another song causes enthusiasts to revisit their works and reminisce on their legacy. While we cannot be there in person to thank them for what they have done, the least we can do is pay homage through their music.

Another reason these artists gain new listeners could be attributed to morbid curiosity. Upon hearing of their passing, those who have not yet listened to the artist may be more curious to check out their work. Death is intriguing, and the drama surrounding it can prompt people who are uninformed to dive into an artist’s work. XXXTentacion said as much in his posthumous song, “Falling Down,” with the late rapper Lil Peep, in which he expresses his regret in not having collaborated with the artist sooner, saying that “your remorse kinda makes you check ‘em out.”

Yet, there is never a lack of exposure when it comes to the passing of a celebrity. In the age of social media, articles reporting the death of a musician get posted within minutes of its occurrence and are shared and commented on by thousands. With the majority of articles embedded with streaming links to the artist’s albums and songs, it is no surprise that they receive thousands or millions of views in a single day. This high-volume traffic causes their streaming numbers to skyrocket and makes their music relevant again.

“You go viral when you die,” said Wayne Larsen, a Concordia University journalism professor. “That increases interest, and in turn, generates sales and streaming.” However, Larsen also believes the death of an artist wipes their slate clean, regardless of their past. “You become eulogized by fans after you die, simply because you become bigger than life. You can’t have a bad album. There are no missteps after death.”

Perhaps there is truth to the claim that no one wants to speak ill of the dead. Once deceased, we are quick to forgive artists for their mistakes, whether from their personal life or musical career. They become embodied in their work of art and all that is left to remember them by is their music and the way they have, and continue, to make us feel through it. Perhaps it is only once an artist dies that they truly become larger than life.

Graphic by @spooky_soda

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