Death might not end your career, but you’ll have to forfeit creative control

Cobain beats Elvis as richest artist (deceased)
By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
Published: 25 October 2006

Death is not always the dumbest of career moves, especially if you are a rock star of enduring appeal. Kurt Cobain, the one-time frontman for Nirvana who committed suicide in 1994, earned $50m (£25m) over the past year, according to Forbes magazine’s annual list of Top-Earning Dead Celebrities published yesterday.

That figure catapulted Cobain into first place, beating the most reliable of posthumous money-spinners, Elvis Presley, as well as a predominantly musical dozen of also-rans including John Lennon, Ray Charles and Bob Marley. (Story.)

Fascinating stuff. For my part, I’d like to earn a bit of money before I die. But that’s just me, I guess.

The full top ten looks like this:

  1. Kurt Cobain ($50m – £26.3m)
  2. Elvis Presley ($42m – £22.1m)
  3. Charles Schulz ($35m – £18.4m)
  4. John Lennon ($24m – £12.6m)
  5. Albert Einstein ($20m – £10.5m)
  6. Andy Warhol ($19m – £10m)
  7. Dr Seuss/Theodor Geisel ($10ms – £5.3m)
  8. Ray Charles ($10m – £5.3m)
  9. Marilyn Monroe ($8m – £4.2m)
  10. Johnny Cash ($8m – £4.2m)

Oddly, this list arrives at a time when I’ve been thinking about a related issue – the question of control in the image business. Once you begin cooking for the Kennedys you lose a great deal of your ability to control your own brand, and every time I see another dead celeb being danced around like a grotesque digital marionette hawking product, I have to tell you, I get a little queasy. John Wayne. Humphrey Bogart. Steve McQueen. And now Audrey Hepburn, expressing herself to sell skinny black pants for GAP.

We live in a world where people become brands and identities are routinely co-opted by the demands of celebrity and commerce, and it’s a little disturbing to realize that if I became famous, video of me shot today could be deconstructed and reconstructed after I die and put in service to things I would never support in life. Hell, by that point they won’t even need video – just give them a couple photographs and they’ll create the rest.

Aren’t there some pretty powerful ethical questions in all this? Sure, a lot of the income in that list above issues directly from the continued sale of the work the artists produced while they were alive, and that’s fine. But there ought to be a line somewhere, right? For instance, all recording artists have outtakes laying around. Songs that aren’t released, often for good reason. If an artist chose not to release a song while alive, isn’t it unethical to cash it in after his/her tragic death?

This question is actually part of a much larger issue I’ve been pondering lately – has the “digital revolution” completely annihilated the possibilty of controlling message and image? Well, that’s a rhetorical question. The real conversation needs to address the negotiational strategies and tactics that have to replace old modes of control (primarily a marcom and PR question) and the ethical implications of image and visual communication (on the ad side).

Hmmmm….

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