There is no better time to be an artist than when you’ve just died.
Showbiz sages have watched it happen again and again: As soon as death silences a popular entertainer, and suddenly all the work he has created becomes all the work he will ever create, his popularity and financial worth soar. Last week, it happened for David Bowie.
The album he released just two days before he died became his first to top the Billboard charts. Tickets to the musical he co-wrote, which opened in New York last month to middling reviews, sold on StubHub for $1,900. His videos broke a streaming record on Vevo, and SiriusXM radio brought back an entire channel devoted to his music.
While fans are wistfully humming “Space Oddity,” a cluster of his associates — heirs, estate planners, lawyers, managers and creative directors — will begin scrambling for ways to make this Bowie boom last long after the Twitter tributes disappear.
Should there be a Bowie documentary? A coffee-table book? A “Ziggy Stardust” restaurant? A “Life on Mars” theme park?
And how can they be created tastefully, in a way that doesn’t exploit a beloved dead icon?
“Everyone I see trying to do this looks at an artist’s body of work like vultures over a dead animal, looking for pink flesh to pluck off and feed the machine,” said Jeff Jampol, whose company manages the legacies of Jim Morrison, the Ramones, Otis Redding and the Doors. “What we try to do is reanimate the body, lift it up, and revenue streams will come with it.”
He’s speaking figuratively, but that’s sometimes the problem: Without the artist there to govern the work, the decisions are left to heirs, who usually hire lawyers and creative managers to run the estate.
“Music is very subjective and creative. Business is business,” said Gary Gilbert, whose law firm manages the estates of Rick James and Miles Davis. “Marrying those two concepts is kind of weird sometimes.”
It’s not as simple as dividing up assets based on a will. Imagine if all the furniture your grandpa left behind is worth millions of dollars. And it could make many more millions for years to come, if it is shared and promoted in just the right way.
Keeping an artist’s work alive takes more than hoping their music still gets played on the radio. The key seems to be giving fans experiences that connect them with not only the artist’s music, but also the artist’s persona.
The Elvis Presley estate has Graceland, the mansion in Memphis that was the singer’s former home. It opened as a museum five years after his death and today attracts more than 600,000 visitors each year.
Branded products are big moneymakers, too. Nearly 35 years after Bob Marley’s death, you can drink Marley Coffee or the relaxation tea “Marley’s Mellow Mood” while listening to “One Love” on your House of Marley headphones.
Then there’s the artist’s story, ripe for books and documentaries. In 2015, there was “Montage of Heck,” a second Kurt Cobain documentary; “Amy,” the Amy Winehouse documentary; “The Amazing Nina Simone”; and “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” about Janis Joplin.
The Joplin documentary, while capturing the highlights, is explicit about the scabs on her career. Jampol, who runs her estate, said they would never dare to gloss over her drug use.
“That’s the hardest conversation with the heirs or beneficiaries,” Jampol said. “Because you never know if what you think you’re protecting is the part that is the key, the secret ingredient.”
The worst you can do by an artist, experts say, is nothing. If Bowie’s music and image are not promoted, they will inevitably begin to fade. Whitney Houston, for example, was beloved and revered in life. But after her 2012 death, the remembrances that received the most publicity were a Lifetime movie denounced by her estate, and a memoir by her mother called “disrespectful” by her daughter, Bobbi Kristina. The conversation surrounding her name today is most often about the death of Bobbi Kristina and related family drama.
Compare that with the story of the ultimate artist turnaround: Michael Jackson. In the 2000s, his finances were known to be dismal, child molestation accusations exploded and he was most often seen on the cover of tabloids. Then he died, and suddenly the King of Pop reigned again. There was “This Is It,” the Michael Jackson movie; “Bad 25” the Michael Jackson documentary; “One,” the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil show in Vegas; and “Immortal,” the Vegas show’s 157-city world tour.
“He was essentially touring at two places at the same time, and he’s not even alive anymore,” said Zack O’Malley Greenburg, author of “Michael Jackson, Inc.” and senior editor at Forbes, which publishes an annual ranking of the worth of deceased celebrities.
MJ topped the list with $115 million earned last year, beating out Marley, Elvis, and “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz. That brought Jackson’s total postmortem earnings to more than $1 billion.
A key component to the Jackson estate’s success is the wealth of unreleased material he left behind. There are plans to release 10 new Michael Jackson CDs, each a chance to spark renewed interest.
Tupac Shakur’s estate has been similarly blessed, said attorney Dina LaPolt, who helped his mother, Afeni Shakur, manage the estate for 13 years. Each unreleased piece of art is instantly more valuable because the artist who made it is gone.
“Death will exaggerate the commercial value of your business more than winning five Grammys, 10 Oscars or 14 Golden Globes,” LaPolt said.
It’s unclear how much music Bowie left behind, considering he released an album just before he died. Producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone that Bowie did write and demo at least five songs that were meant to be released after his album.
Chances are, Bowie, who knew his cancer was terminal, made sure to get his “affairs in order,” as they say. He was known as a savvy and innovative businessman; in 1997, he sold the rights to his future earnings in “Bowie Bonds,” a risky but innovative move that made $55 million. Analysts have said that he played the Wall Street game just right, entering when the interest in unusual investments was peaking.
Good timing will be key if the Bowie estate wants to ride the interest in his music for as long as possible, said Joshua Rubenstein, national chairman of trusts and estates for the firm Katten Muchin Rosenman.
“Musical tastes change so quickly, you don’t want to wait too long until you’ve missed your opportunity,” Rubenstein said. “There are people like Elvis, who are unique, because the interest never dies. Whether Bowie is unique waits to be seen.”
John Branca, who co-runs the Michael Jackson estate, said there will inevitably be a “greatest hits” album of some kind. Beyond that, you can’t compare Bowie to other artists to find the answer.
“What you do for Jim Morrison is not the same as what you do for Michael Jackson. You have to stay true to the artist,” Branca said. “You have to sit down and study who he was. What would Bowie have done?”
For now, fans are keeping the Bowie boom going, with memorials taking place across the world. There’s Bowie street art, photography exhibits, film screenings and memorial concerts. A tribute concert at Carnegie Hall pre-scheduled for March 31 was reconfigured as a memorial concert. After the concert promptly sold out, the organizers added a second show at Radio City Musical Hall on April 1. VIP tickets, which ranged from $325 to $3,000, sold out in one hour.
A message on Bowie’s Facebook page stated: “While the concerts and tributes planned for the coming weeks are all welcome, none are official memorials organized or endorsed by the family.”
The discussions on how to carry on his legacy will likely start soon, but Bowie ensured there was plenty of nearly new material for his fans to devour the moment they heard he was gone: his best-selling album yet and a musical, “Lazarus” — the name of the man in the Bible who died and, soon after, was raised back to life.