October 23, 2023
The world of deceased celebrities continues to be a lucrative one, although earnings have seen a significant decline in the past year. According to Forbes' annual ranking of the highest-paid dead celebrities, the top earners in the afterlife earned a combined total of $470 million in the past 12 months, a 70% decrease from the record-breaking $1.6 billion earned in 2022.
One of the main reasons for the decline in earnings is the drop in nine-figure music catalog sales. In previous years, many deceased stars earned a significant portion of their income through the acquisition of their intellectual property. However, this year, only one artist's estate, that of Ray Manzarek, the late keyboardist for the Doors, sold their interest in the band's work. This decline in catalog sales has affected the overall earnings of deceased stars.
Without the boost from catalog sales, the top earners on this year's list are familiar names in the afterlife. Michael Jackson takes the number one spot with an estimated $115 million in earnings, followed by Elvis Presley at number two. Dr. Seuss and Charles M. Schulz round out the top five.
Entertainment lawyer Bernard Resnick identifies three main causes for the cooling of catalog deals. First, these investments often take many years to produce a meaningful return, and companies that buy catalogs have exhausted their capital. Second, borrowing money has become more expensive, making it harder for companies to buy catalogs. Lastly, there is a limited supply of catalogs available for sale, as many legacy artists and writers have already sold their catalogs.
Another factor affecting the earnings of deceased stars is the finite window of copyright protection. The owner of a catalog can only maintain the copyright for 70 years after the artist's death. This makes the works of long-dead stars less desirable compared to those who have recently passed away.
The growing trend of artists cashing in on their music rights while they are still alive also affects the supply of catalogs. Artists like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and Dr. Dre have sold their music rights for large sums of money, leaving fewer catalogs available for purchase.
Despite the decline in earnings, some deceased stars are still finding new opportunities. For example, Jimmy Buffett, who passed away too recently to make this year's list, is expected to earn significant income in the coming years. Additionally, posthumous releases and brand collaborations continue to generate revenue for many deceased celebrities.
While earnings for deceased celebrities have seen a decline in the past year, the afterlife remains a profitable realm. The top earners on this year's list, including Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, continue to generate substantial income. However, the decline in catalog sales and the limited supply of available catalogs pose challenges for the earnings of deceased stars. As the industry evolves, artists and their estates must adapt to new opportunities and strategies to maximize their earnings in the afterlife.
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