By Tomi Mendel
According to Billboard, sales of Etta James’ music have increased by 378% since the singer’s recent death on January 20th. Her greatest hits compilation The Best of Etta James - 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection has just become her highest charting album ever, rising to number forty-six. Meanwhile, her download numbers received an even greater boost, as fans purchased 118,000 songs for an astounding 1,091% increase from the previous week’s sales. This is not the first time a musician has found success after their passing. In fact, it seems to be almost a tradition for music buyers to honor fallen heroes in this manner, especially in our social-media driven music world, when having music at our fingertips means we are ready to start downloading whenever there is a scandal, death, or other breaking news. It’s the same reason Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” had a huge week in downloads after a video of President Obama’s performing it at a fundraiser went viral.
Etta James is finding success in the afterlife.
Actually, this kind of trend occurred before the download era as well. When former Beatle George Harrison passed away in 2002, his solo hit “My Sweet Lord” topped the U.K. charts and re-entered the Hot 100 here in the U.S at number ninety-four. Interestingly, a re-recording of the same song was released just one year prior to commemorate the reissue of Harrison’s solo debut All Things Must Pass. That year, however, the song failed to chart. Unfortunately, it seems that it sometimes takes a death to make people interested, and it’s sad that fans were not able to show their appreciation for Harrison while he was still alive.
George was the first ex-Beatle to have a solo chart-topper.
The phenomenon is especially strong for those artists who have died tragically and suddenly while they were still in their prime. Another ex-Beatle, John Lennon, had his biggest American solo hit with “(Just Like) Starting Over” in late 1980, immediately following his horrific murder in December of that year. What had been a middling single prior to his death flew to the top of the charts as the world mourned, followed by “Woman” and, in the U.K., a re-release of “Imagine.” Otis Redding was the first artist to have a posthumous number one in the U.S., earning his only career chart-topper with “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay” in 1968, only a month after the soul singer tragically lost his life in a plane crash. Other artists who saw a big sales bump after their deaths were Jim Croce, Johnny Cash, Tupac Shakur, and recently, Amy Winehouse.
Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 led to a sales increase so strong that it forced Billboard to make a change to the rules of their album charts. After his passing, in the first month alone, Jackson sold close to ten million albums worldwide. By year’s end, he was by far the top selling artist of the year both worldwide and domestically. Jackson’s greatest hits compilation, Number Ones, was the biggest seller for him that year. However, because it had been originally released in 2003, Billboard rules deemed it a “catalog album,” and as a result, it did not appear on the regular Billboard 200 album chart. Due to the incredible posthumous sales of Number Ones and other albums, Billboard announced that they were amending their rules to include both current and catalog albums on their weekly top 200 chart.
Number Ones sold big in 2009.
Clearly, the posthumous sales bump remains a significant force in popular music. In many ways, it’s a bit nonsensical. It may indicate that a song’s ability to “stand the test of time” has less to do with musical quality and more to do with pop culture relevance. While the state of affairs seems to reflect poorly on music fans, all too eager to throw an artist to the trash heap before suddenly relenting upon his or her death, it probably has more to do with the human instinct we all share to honor the dead. Sometimes a death or scandal, just like a song being featured in an advertisement or movie, can serve as a reminder of a tune or an artist many people had loved but forgotten. Still, it is always better to try and appreciate an artist to the fullest while they are still alive.