It feels like celebrities have been dying in record numbers in 2016 (in reality, it hasn’t been all that different from past years), and that’s especially true of legendary musicians: David Bowie, Prince, and Merle Haggard, among others.
The latest high-profile celebrity to go was actor Gene Wilder, perhaps best known for his roles in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. But his death resembled that of musicians in at least one way — it had a notable effect on music sales.
Since Wilder died on August 29, streams of “Pure Imagination,” a song he sung in Willy Wonka, jumped 1,061 percent. His death also affected purchases of the movie’s soundtrack. According to a story in Billboard, “the album sold 2,000 copies in the week ending Sept. 1 — a 1,093 percent gain from the previous week.”
This seems to happen whenever a musician dies. Bowie’s numbers on Spotify were up 2,700 percent the week after he died. And Billboard reported that his final album, Blackstar,which wasreleased on his 69th birthday, two days before his death from cancer, when on to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200. It was Bowie’s first number one record.
We know video killed the radio star, and Napster and its descendants redefined music ownership — which had been going through a decades-long crisis since Promethean rappers and MCs brought sampling to the masses. (Even a cursory look at the tortured history of copyright law in America bears this out.)
Streaming is the latest attempt to resolve the ownership issue. Prince died earlier this year; his music exclusively streams on Tidal because he didn’t agree with the way other services related to artists. Did people stream more of his songs after his death? Probably, though since Tidal doesn’t release streaming stats, we’ll never know for sure.Regardless, radio stations went all-Prince in the aftermath, no doubt introducing “Purple Rain” to young people and reminding the olds how great he was.
When musicians die, it jolts us out of our habitual music listening patterns backed up bydata showing that most people listen to a very small number of artists. Rather than democratizing music, streaming has consolidated listening to the hits more effectively than top-40 radio ever did.
A musician’s death — or, sometimes, an actor’s death — breaks people from their music habits and expands their horizons. It’s just a shame it has to happen that way.