About a week ago, caught up in the heartfelt obits and the various tributes throughout South by Southwest to Alex Chilton, I ordered Thirdonline. Part of the reason I bought it over the Web was because none of our local record stores had the CD. But a deeper reason was because I didn’t want to hear a record store clerk say “Would’ve been a lot cooler to have sold this when Chilton was alive.”
Sadly, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, Teddy Pendergrass, Vic Chesnutt and Chilton have enjoyed some of their biggest sales weeks for the saddest of reasons. It’s a habit that’s easy to predict. An artist dies, triggering an outpouring of obits from the press. Other artists express their condolences in interviews or on their Twitter accounts. For some, this is either a sincere form of tribute or an honest attempt to try to learn more about the artist. For others, it’s bandwagon jumping at its worst.
Take Michael Jackson. A July 16, 2009 article in the LA Times reported Jackson’s posthumous album sales were approaching ten million worldwide less than a month after his death. For lifelong fans, this was a reconfirmation of what made Jackson such a beloved figure worldwide before his near 20-year dominance in the tabloids. For other fans that thought that Jackson was bullied by the public and in the press, the huge album sales and tributes were just another cynical marketing strategy to make money at his expense. Either way for Jackson fans, he remains an enterprise. So much so that Sony is betting $250 million that their album contract with the Michael Jackson estate will pay off.
Even before his death, it looked like Michael Jackson just very well could have dug himself out of the mountains of debt he racked up by putting on one amazing tour. Vic Chesnutt, unfortunately, had far more immediate problems facing him before he died of a drug overdose. In an interview with Spinner, Chesnutt said he was worried because a hospital where he was being treated was suing him for $35,000 for unpaid bills. Though his depression dated further back than his financial woes, it’s almost a given that the mounting stresses that came with trying to pay medical bills played some role in his death. Any posthumous sales coming to Chesnutt come with a pang of guilt - as the sales of his albums after his overdose could have at least made a significant dent in his medical expenses.
The reasons behind the posthumous sales bump most artists receive are as varied as why their albums sold when they were living. For some buyers, it’s a legitimate way of paying tribute to the artist. For others, it’s to be part of a shared experience (as shown this past summer with the huge album sales of Jackson’s back catalog). And to some, it’s the chance to finally pick up the release of an artist that was just outside their regular album purchases (see Teddy Pendergrass, Sparklehorse). Waiting until an artist dies before you can appreciate their work is a poor way to honor the artist, but it’s inevitable. And when it comes to discovering a genius like Alex Chilton or Teddy Pendergrass, discovering them late is better than not discovering them at all.