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Music Is Eternal: why we buy music when a musician dies

A musician dies, and people immediately rush to the store (brick and mortar or online) to purchase his/her catalog.

As we’ve seen, with the passing of a musician, album sales spike tremendously. In the four days since the death of Michael Jackson, total album sales eclipsed the 400,000 mark. When an artist dies prematurely record sales jump exponentially. When we know an artist is near death because of old age or from a terminal disease, not so much.

There are main two reasons why a recently departed musician’s fans will go out and buy music that is most likely decades old. The first is because there is no more music to be made by the deceased artist. Our species are the ultimate hunters and gatherers, and while we may no longer hunt for food, we still hunt for goods. We gather materialistic items and many of us have some type of collection; books, dvds, paintings, electronics, music, etc. So when an artist goes to the great gig in the sky, the opportunity to compile new music also vanishes, in a way making the artist’s catalogue finite.

Recorded music, by definition, is immortal and the death of a musician emphasizes this fact. More importantly, we realize that the artist will no longer be creating music to fit into our lives. We all have a life soundtrack. I can remember the first time I listened to Abbey Road or how a particular Phish song made me cry, and with the death of an artist, we can only hear what has been already recorded and not anticipate the new. We are left with an emotional void from that particular artist and it’s filled when we pick up his/her/its music from the past.

The second reason we pick up a dead artist’s material is more emotional; music, it can be argued, is the purest form of communication. We don’t need to know Italian to understand Verdi’s Rigolleto, as we listen to the comedic “La donna e mobile.” Similarly, we don’t need to be feeling “blue” to understand B.B King or Robert Johnson, but when we do, we can hear the sadness, the loneliness, the disquietude. We understand music.

As mentioned above, music looms large in our lives. We place memories to music – from wedding songs to losing your virginity (yes, a lot of people listen to music when they have sex) – and when an artist who has been a recurring source of inspiration or a guide through tough times dies, a piece of us dies. Music is emotion and as soon as one our favorite recording artist dies, we harness that emotion by picking up their music. Although, this begs the question, if we were already fans of the artist, wouldn’t we have the music already?

Music is eternal, artists aren’t and when the life of an artist is extinguished we want to remember how the music moves us. Some artists have staying power, selling millions of albums posthumously; The Beatles and Elvis are consistently making millions of dollars per year for their estates. This is the ultimate testament of how music is so influential in our collective lives. Decades after The Beatles disbanded, they’re still being listened to. Right now, in fact, a 13 year old is listening to The White Album for the first time and is wondering how Dear Prudence is 40 years old.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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