Legacy and Dead Celebrities – It’s Not All About the Money (Guest Blog)

For a dead celebrity, continuing to earn money is only half the battle when it comes to managing their estate

Forbes’ report on the top earning dead celebrities for 2013 is topped by Michael Jackson, who earned an estimated $160 million in 2013 (enough to make Jackson the highest earning celebrity dead or alive, with Madonna coming in a distant second at an estimated $125 million).

Elvis Presley came in as the second with $55 million, while legendary reggae artist Bob Marley ranked fifth at $18 million. John Lennon also made the cut, coming in at #7 on the list with an estimated $12 million earned in 2013.

These numbers are impressive, but for a dead celebrity, continuing to earn money is only half the battle when it comes to managing their estate, especially if that celebrity was an artist like the ones named above. The other half, which I would argue is equally if not more important, is managing the celebrity’s legacy.

A celebrity’s legacy is everything that celebrity was during their lifetime in the public’s eye. In the case of an artist, their legacy consists not only of their body of work (e.g., their music, writings, etc.), but also the message that artist conveyed to the world, what they stood for and symbolized as a public figure.

Lennon and Marley are interesting artists to talk about because they have each gained almost religious status among their fans. Both are not only remembered for their music, but also (and probably equally so) for being ambassadors of peace, love and revolution. They were anti-establishment, anti-capitalist. Like most artists, I think you can safely say that when they were alive they did not make music for the money. Their continuing legacies, therefore, should also not just be about making money.

Artists create out of a need for expression, and to ultimately communicate and deliver a message. Understanding that message, and understanding the artist, are critical to managing an artist’s estate and continuing to bring that message and art to new audiences in a responsible manner that preserves the artist’s integrity and celebrates the artist’s spirit.

Should an artist’s life be turned into a movie? A Broadway play? Would the artist like his or face on coffee mugs sold at Target? Who should their music be licensed to – movies, a Nike commercial? Each of these types of opportunities could prove to be significantly lucrative, but which ones help preserve and grow the artist’s legacy?

While these questions may seem complex, add to the already challenging situation lawsuits and feuding among family members regarding control of the artist’s legacy and estate, and the task becomes even more strained.

With proper planning, however, many problems can be avoided. Ensuring that the right structure and team is in place to oversee the management of the artist’s legacy is critical. Putting that structure and team in place should be done during the artist’s lifetime, and, preferably, as early on in their career as possible.

Although by definition a legacy is something that you leave behind, creating a legacy is actually something that happens during life, and is the culmination of every action taken and word spoken.

So, whether you are Madonna, Jay-Z, Pearl Jam or some up-and-coming artist, putting a structure and plan in place now to develop and manage your legacy both during your lifetime and after your death is something you do now, not later. That is, unless you don’t care about your art or your legacy, or maybe it’s just all about the money.