Dead Musicians Rollin’ From the Grave
Illustrations by Dolly Li
When talented individuals leave the living world for the next life, some end up becoming larger than life cultural icons posthumously. Countless artists have died penniless but became immortalized in history textbooks. Countless singers have died in debt but quadrupled their profits from the grave. Who are the top-earning dead musicians of today and how are they still reaping in millions of dollars in profit?
Michael Jackson, $140 million
Surprisingly, the late Michael Jackson makes the bulk of his cash from two MJ-themed Cirque du Soleil shows: Immortal, one of their most profitable shows of all time, and One, a permanent staple of Las Vegas. Earnings form his half of Sony/ATV and his own Mijac music catalogue are not shabby either.
Died: June 25, 2009 at age 50
Benefactors: Sony/ATV, his children, Prince Michael, Paris and Michael Jr., his mother, Katherine
Elvis Presley, $55 million
“The King” still reaps most of his profit from admissions to Graceland, his home of over 20 years in Memphis, TN. In fact, Elvis is such an American attraction that the rest of his earnings are made up from merchandizing and licensing.
Died: August 16, 1977 at age 42
Benefactors: His former wife, Priscilla Presley, and their daughter, Lisa-Marie Presley
Bob Marley, $20 million
Bob Marley remains an iconic symbol of music and spirituality for many listeners worldwide, not just Rastafarians and teenage stoners. Post-mortem, he has sold more than 75 million albums worldwide (to put that in perspective, Rihanna, who has six platinum and multi-platinum albums in the U.S., has sold only 41 million albums). Marley also raked in a healthy $2 million in 2014 from the Marley Beverage company (they make Marley Coffee and a “relaxation drink” known as Marley’s Mellow Mood) and House of Marley (maker of eco-friendly audio and lifestyle products). Rumor has it that Lamb’s Bread was Marley’s favorite strain of weed, but he’s most likely not profiting from that endorsement even with the exploding medical marijuana industry.
Died: May 11, 1981 at age 36
Benefactors: His wife, Rita, and his 11 children
John Lennon, $12 million
Like MJ, the famed Beatles co-founder and anti-war activist also makes good money from a Beatles-themed Cirque du Soleil show (note to self: you know you’ve made it when Cirque du Soleil wants to turn your life into an acrobatic dance performance) and other licensing deals with brands such as Cisco and Mont Blanc. The Beatles have pretty tight restrictions on their music licenses (Beatles songs are not yet available on streaming services such as Spotify), but Lennon still earns plenty from iTunes sales and his own 8-album solo discography.
Died: December 8, 1980 at age 40
Benefactors: Yoko Ono supposedly earned more than $330M from her late husband’s estate. She’s also the gatekeeper for many John Lennon-licensed products and has authorized the use of his name to Ben & Jerry and to the printing of a picture of his butt on a watch.
Amy Winehouse, $2 million
Although Amy isn’t technically one of the highest earning dead musicians, the “Back to Black” singer quadrupled her worth in just the first 3 years after her death through a growth in record sales. Now there’s even a biopic about her life and an Amy art exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. All she needs next is Cirque du Soleil.
Died: July 23, 2011 at age 27
Benefactors: Her parents, Mitch and Janis