Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Live and let die: The bright side of death for musicians

(David Bowie. Source: T. Blake Littwin)

What happens to music sales when an artist dies? 

On January 10th 2016, the world mourned the loss of one of the biggest musical and stylistic icons: David Bowie. 

According to Spotify, at 6.40pm the following day (Jan. 11th) music streams of David Bowie had increased by 2700%. Indeed, on that day alone 15 of David Bowie's albums were in the top-selling 40 items on iTunes with 'Blackstar' shooting to number 1 and 'Best of Bowie' following up at number 2.

Source: David Yanofksy (2016) 

And Bowie is not alone in gaining a huge boost in posthumous sales. Similar stories can be seen with the works of Amy Winehouse, Kurt Kobain, Michael Jackson, Janis Joplin and Lou Reed.

For the love of god, 7 of Tupac Shakur's 11 platinum selling albums were released posthumously. His rival Notorious B.I.G saw his posthumous album 'Life After Death' hit number 1 just 15 days after his passing and has since been certified diamond. 

What is going on here and what makes an artist so popular after they die? 

(Notorious B.I.G. Source: T. Blake Littwin)

'Death effect'?

In fine art, the value of an artist's work will often soar after they have passed away. The knowledge that no more new products will be created leads consumers to attach a much higher value to existing products. Researchers have called this the 'death effect' (Ekelund et al., 2000) and it draws centrally on the idea of scarcity (Cialdini, 2009).

In the music industry however, products can be re-produced on a mass scale long after an artist has died (Brandes et al., 2014). Just last week I purchased a remastered version of Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love record. Surely then, there is more to this than just scarcity? 

Informational advertising (new fans)

Firstly, the death of an artist can attract new customers by allowing them to learn about the works of someone they may have been previously unfamiliar with. This effect describes the death of an artist as a form of 'informational advertising' (Brandes et al., 2014). The DJ's of a radio show I listen to put this most succinctly in the days following David Bowie's death:

'One of the silver linings for such a loss will be the expansion of people now discovering Bowie's music for the first time' - These Charming Men (Radio Show on Raw1251am)

Nostalgia and mortality salience (existing fans)

Although this finding can help to explain the increase in sales of an artist's greatest work, it cannot explain why many albums of lower quality also see a boost. In addition, it does not seem to add up with the behaviours of existing fans who undoubtedly would already own such work?

Research shows that sales can also increase because of the nostalgia of existing fans (Brandes et al., 2014). The death of a beloved artist allows people to go back and re-listen to past work which can be one way to help alleviate grief. Indeed, a study by Harju (2015) describes how digital spaces like YouTube can become a place of collective mourning for fans in a phenomenon known as 'disenfranchised guilt'. Moreover, nostalgia has previously been shown to be a form of symbolic consumption that can make us buy more (Baker & Kennedy, 1994).

On a separate note, the loss of a big artist can also remind a fan that their own time is finite. In other words, it can make them more aware of the salience of mortality. Such an emotional impact can lead existing fans to place greater value on the works of an artist they had not previously purchased. This helps to explain why those slightly more 'niche' albums can also see a revival (Bradnes et al., 2014). 

(Janis Joplin. Source: T. Blake Littwin)

What about scarcity and social proof? 

While these explanations are persuasive, one cannot rule out the potential for other factors such as scarcity and social proof (Cialdini, 2009). Although the music industry does not have the same system as fine art, writer for Think.Org Erik Devaney suggests there may be a more subtle effect of scarcity at work. It may be that although an artist's works can be reproduced, their creative output has officially ended and we can longer take it for granted. A quote used by Devaney illustrates the point quite well: 

"Most of us, after all, have a tendency to take the continuing output of long-lived creative artists for granted, in much the same way that a resident of New York City might never get around to visiting a local landmark like the Empire Estate Building" -  Terry Teachout 
 In addition, it is possible that the media frenzy generated by a huge star's death could trigger the automatic processing of our System 1 brain via the availability heuristic (Kahneman, 2011). In such a way, we may be more likely to buy a deceased artists work simply because it has been mentioned on the news so much. Furthermore, this could be catalysed by the concept of 'social proofing' whereby many other people buying an artist's album leads us to do the same (Brandes et al., 2014). 

Watch out! Marketing from the afterlife 

Continuing the legacy of musicians long after they have passed is a pretty amazing thing. However, from a behavioural science perspective consumers should be aware of their vulnerability to influence from retailers.

Brandes et al. (2014) suggest retailers could tailor their information towards consumers based on the purchasing history of the consumer. This could mean you start to receive tailored advertisements depending on whether you are an existing or potential new fan. Despite it's grim connotations, marketing the dead could also be used in other areas. Research shows that consumers are not put off by marketers utilising a deceased artists social media account to distribute new products once the inital salience of death has passed (Boeuf & Darveau, 2017).

Not the King too? (Screenshot from Twitter)

The day the music died? 

So, the next time you find yourself with the entire back catalogue of Michael Jackson in your library, perhaps you should take the advice of Billie Jean and 'just remember to always think twice'. Alternatively, if you want the music to live on then go ahead and let your guard down, you're Mr. Brightside.


Baker, S. M., & Kennedy, P. F. (1994). Death by nostalgia: A diagnosis of context-specific cases. ACR North American Advances, 21, 169-174.

Boeuf, B., & Darveau, J. (2017). Posting from beyond the grave: An autopsy of consumer attitudes toward promotional communication in a posthumous context. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 34, 892-900.

Brandes, L., Nüesch, S., & Franck, E. (2016). Death-related publicity as informational advertising: evidence from the music industry. Marketing Letters, 27, 143-157. 

Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (Vol. 4). Boston, MA: Pearson education.

Devaney, E. The economics of posthumous popularity. Retrieved 26.01.2016, from 

Ekelund, R. B., Ressler, R. W., & Watson, J. K. (2000). The "Death-Effect'' in Art Prices: A Demand-Side Exploration. Journal of Cultural Economics, 24, 283-300.

Harju, A. (2015). Socially shared mourning: construction and consumption of collective memory. New review of hypermedia and multimedia, 21, 123-145.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Yanofsky, D. (2016). This is what David Bowie's death looked like to Spotify. Retrieved 11.01.2016, from 

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