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Why Dead Rock Stars Get More Popular Over Time

Tom Petty in Denmark 2012
Tom Petty in Denmark, 2012. CC BY SA 3.0. Credit: Ирина Лепнёва

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of Tom Petty.  For those of us in the rock community, it’s been a difficult few years as several icons from David Bowie to Glenn Frey to Prince have departed this earth.  But this is nothing new in rock ‘n roll.  Our stars have been dying prematurely for decades.

You’ve probably hear of the infamous “27 Club” – that list of rock stars who all eerily passed away at the ripe young age of 27.  They include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones), and in more recent years, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.  Clearly, the insurance actuarial table for rockers reads a lot differently than for school teachers, dentists, or flight attendants.

Tom Petty made it until age 66, but left a hole in the hearts of many rock fans.  Interestingly enough, his music has become more popular over the last 12 months.  Part of that is due to the fact we don’t realize what we had until it’s gone, but the other phenomenon is that death helps us rediscover music, while lionizing the departed.

Backstage Access: Tom Petty – Can’t Believe He’s Gone

Steven Hyden discussed this odd phenomenon recently in UPROXX.  He reports combing through the Petty catalogue, as well as enjoying the newly released box set, the aptly titled “An American Treasure.”

And he asks the key question:

“What is it about losing our heroes that makes their music sound better?”

I remember having the same sensation when Stevie Ray Vaughan tragically met his demise in that helicopter accident back in 1990.  Andy Bloom was programming WYSP at the time, and remarked to me:

“Stevie Ray Vaughan had to die so we could play him on Classic Rock stations.”

At the time, I cringed at the remark.  But in retrospect he was right.  Like painters who only become truly popular after they die, Vaughan – and others who meet their makers – are vaulted into new positions of respect and prominence after they leave this earth.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, 1983. Left to right: Chris Layton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tommy Shannon

Watch: Stevie Ray Vaughan Effortlessly Handles Broken String While Performing

Hyden chalks up the newfound popularity of deceased artists such as Prince, Petty, and Bowie to nostalgia, but it’s also partially due to the fan realization these cultural icons are finite and they’re diminishing with each passing year.

It’s a reminder we should appreciate them while they’re with us, but we seldom actually do – unless they’re named Springsteen, the Stones, or Paul McCartney.

And in death, many of the warts that were part of their biographies get sanded down or even disappear altogether.  That was certainly the case for Aretha Franklin’s passing this summer.  The praise for the “Queen of Soul” was endless – as it should have been.  Her lasting, influential musical legacy may never be duplicated.  And her raw, emotional talent was on display in tributes to her from fans around the world.

But just five years ago, a big story here in Detroit was that Aretha was chronically delinquent on paying her bills dating back to the late 80s.  She allegedly racked up more than 30 lawsuits from contractors, local merchants, and others Detroit area businesses.  The aggrieved included florists, plumbers, and limo drivers, according to a big expose in The Detroit Free Press, which received some coverage nationally.

Photo credit: Ann Delisi

In death, however, Aretha has been canonized, remembered for the joy she brought to so many lives.  There are plans in Detroit to name an amphitheater and a highway after her (the “Freeway of Love?”).  And who can forget that funeral caravan of pink Cadillacs that served as a unique Motor City-flavored tribute to their Queen?

As Hyden notes, that’s the way our fallen stars are inevitably treated and remembered by both hardcore and even casual fans – better in death than in life.

Chances are good radio audiences want to hear more from these artists in the weeks and months after their untimely passings.  Clearly, streams on Spotify palpably grow when a big artist dies.

For radio stations that test their music, it makes sense to devote more hook space to these performers.  I’ve seen this phenomenon in a number of tests – Bowie, Linkin Park, Soundgarden, or Petty may not have been stellar historical performers for your station in gold tests.  But in the wake of the deaths of these artists and front men, the emotional fabric of the audience can change – literally overnight.

In an interesting twist, Ann Wilson (half of Heart) – and a classic artist in her own right – has released Immortal, a tribute album of 10 cover songs by many of the artists mention in this post.  It was appropriately reviewed by AARP.  Clearly, she still has her fastball, as she honors the fallen.

Ann Wilson
Ann Wilson. Credit: Jess Griffin

This steady rhythm of rock star deaths compels stations to have a preparedness strategy for whoever’s next.

Because sadly, it could happen again at any moment.

The music of these fallen stars somehow sounds different after they’ve passed on.

We feel like we’ve lost something that we can still recapture by listening to their music…

…on the radio.

This article was reprinted with permission from Jacobs Media.

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