Music & Musicians

Death becomes them: Five times an artist's album sales benefited from their unexpected demise

Key Points
  • Artists who die unexpectedly see their album sales boosted by a combination of nostalgia and curiosity.
  • In some cases, those sales spikes are significant, and can vault singers who have kept a low profile back into the spotlight.
  • The late Prince was 2016's top-selling artist by far, Billboard notes, and his reign isn't over.
Chester Bennington of Linkin Park
Getty Images

On July 20, Chester Bennington, the 41-year-old lead singer of the group Linkin Park, took his own life. The next day, streaming services experienced a 7,000 percent surge in the group's music plays, according to Variety.

Given the power of music streaming — which now counts toward RIAA certification and is as nearly as valuable as physical album sales — posthumous listening has financial incentives for the singer, in addition to artistic value. An artist's sudden death is more than likely to vault them to the top of the charts, even if they've been out of the spotlight for years.

When rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry passed away in March at the age of 90, his album sales and streams skyrocketed exponentially — not bad for a singer who hadn't dropped a new album in nearly four decades.

Mara Schwartz Kuge, founder and president of Superior Music Corp., said these increases are driven by a few different factors.

"A lot of it is curiosity sparked by news coverage of the artist's death," she told CNBC. "People who may have had a passing familiarity with the artist might see the headlines and decide to give them another listen."

Schwartz-Kuge also cited nostalgia — particularly in the case of Linkin Park, which at the height of its popularity had a large following of high school students.

"Those kids are now grown up and may not have listened to Linkin Park in years, but needed to revisit their music and that era when Chester Bennington recently passed," she said.

Posthumous listening binges also serve the audience's need for catharsis, and for those who didn't know the artist personally. It offers the closest thing to a communal mourning experience.

"You can't go to a celebrity's funeral, but you can mourn privately by bingeing their music," Schwartz-Kuge added.

Many artists have also seen their music sales boom after embracing the sweet hereafter. CNBC took a look at a few whose unexpected demise was followed by a surge in sales.

David Bowie

Rock legend David Bowie performs on stage at the Forum in Copenhagen late 07 October 2003.
Nils Meilvang | AFP | Getty Images

In January 2016, David Bowie died of cancer, just days after his most current album, "Blackstar," had been released. The week after, it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

Despite a distinguished career that started in the 1960s, Bowie's "Blackstar" was the very first time he had a No. 1 album in the United States. He also became the highest-selling artist on the resurgent vinyl format in 2016, according to The Telegraph.

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in 1993
Jeff Kravitz | FilmMagic | Getty Images

In the wake of Kurt Cobain's April 1994 suicide, all three of Nirvana's original studio albums made significant gains on the charts.

According to Billboard, the group's then-current album, "In Utero," jumped from the No. 72 spot to the No. 27 spot. The band's breakthrough album, 1991's "Nevermind," experienced a sales increase of almost 200 percent. "Bleach," the band's 1989 debut, made its first-ever appearance in the Top Pop Catalog chart, hitting No. 6.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson in 1992
Dave Benett | Getty Images

When the King of Pop died of a drug overdose in June 2009 at the age of 50, his death was accompanied by the massive increase in sales. It also caused Billboard magazine to change its own rules regarding older catalog albums like 1982's "Thriller," still the best-selling album in the world.

Originally, Billboard's policy was to remove any album more than 2 years old from its top 200 album chart, no matter how it was selling. When Jackson died, "Thriller" and the 2003 compilation "Number Ones" became the two top-selling albums in the country, prompting Billboard to allow those albums to take their rightful places on its chart. Jackson also owned a slice of The Beatles catalog before his estate sold it to Sony for $750 million.

John Lennon

John Lennon
Chris Walter | Getty Images

When Beatles legend John Lennon of the Beatles was murdered on Dec. 8, 1980, his then-current album, "Double Fantasy," immediately jumped to the No. 1 spot on the charts.

The irony was that the album was much less warmly received when it was released only three weeks earlier, greeted as it was by tepid sales and reviews. It recalled the lyrics from Lennon's 1974 song, "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)," in which he lamented: "Everybody loves you when you're six foot underground."


Prince performs 'Purple Rain' in Los Angeles, Feb. 8, 2004.
Richard Hartog | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

The purple-clad rocker known as Prince saw five of his albums — including his seminal works "1999" and "Purple Rain" — enter the Billboard Top 10 simultaneously, making him the first artist to do so in the chart's 53-year history.

The sales run didn't stop there: Billboard noted Prince outsold every other artist, living or dead, with a total of 7.7 million sold in 2016. Earlier this month, a newly reissued deluxe version of "Purple Rain" took the No. 4 spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart, a full 33 years after its release.