Key Notes - an Irish music blog by Steven O'Rourke

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Dying: A Great Career Move

Jun 18

Written by:
Monday, June 18, 2007  RssIcon

Writing recently about the competition to find Ireland’s Greatest Living Musician gave me the perfect opportunity to delve into my record collection to remind myself of some of the contenders. In the process of completing this task I was taken aback by the sheer volume of music I possessed belonging to musicians now headlining the great gig in the sky. A quick check on my mp3 player showed that of the 100 most frequently played songs, 58 of them were by musicians who have already shuffled off their mortal coil.
Admittedly, that list has a lot to do with an on-going obsession with all things Elliott Smith. More than anyone, Smith represents why dead musicians prove so successful. You see, by being dead, he can’t disappoint me. While “From a Basement on a Hill” and “New Moon” don’t come anywhere near the quality of his ante-mortem offerings such as “Elliott Smith” or “XO” I know that they are not compilations he would have released if he were still alive. Therefore, I accept them for what they are; a collection b-sides and demos released by his estate (New Moon to the benefit of the OUTSIDE IN charity).
Of course Smith was acknowledged as a talented musician before he died. His composition, Miss Misery, (Good Will Hunting) secured him an Oscar nomination, only to be beaten by Titanic’s My Heart Will Go On. However, the widespread success of his two posthumous releases, as well as the unofficial release “Basement II” shows that demand for his material, and his influence as a musician, is on the increase.
The same cannot be said for Nick Drake. In his lifetime he was regarded as nothing more a competent singer-songwriter who failed to find appeal with a wide audience. However, since his death from a drug overdose in 1974, Drake has become widely regarded as one of Britain’s most influential musicians. By the mid-1980s Robert Smith of The Cure was crediting the origin of his band's name to a lyric from Drake's song "Time Has Told Me" - "a troubled cure for a troubled mind.” Drake’s posthumous career reached its peak in 1999 when Bryter Layter was named as the greatest alternative album of all time.
As well as being good for your credibility, dying can also prove beneficial for your finances.   In 2006 Kurt Cobain replaced Elvis at the top of “Top Earning Dead Celebrities”  list, after earning $50 million in sales and publishing rights. Other high earning dead musicians include John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, George Harrison and Bob Marley who between them earned $56 million in 2006.
This goes to show that while dying on stage may not help your career, death most certainly can. What a pity you can’t be around to enjoy it.

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3 comment(s) so far...

Re: Dying: A Great Career Move

From reading your piece, I think you draw some dangerous parallels between Elliott Smith and Nick Drake.

An Elliott Smith gig is, in many ways, the reason I write for CLUAS today. Smith's star was in the ascendancy long before he died. Either/Or and XO were criticially acclaimed, he was Oscar nominated and there was every reason to believe that the album he was recording at the time of his death would have been his biggest and best. The same could be said for Jeff Buckley - in my blog, I've said that Grace would not have been Buckley's masterpiece if he'd remained with us. Surely he would have surpassed it.

Therefore it is my opinion that declaring that untimely death is the reason for their ongoing influence is damaging and, in Ellott Smith's case, just plain wrong. I believe Smith could have been a bigger artist alive today than he is dead. Same for Buckley, though there is less evidence at my disposal to back that up.

Nick Drake and others (Eva Cassidy, Judee Sill etc) enjoyed little success during their lives (unlike Smith and Buckley). But the digital age means that you and I can explore bygone music without needing to spend our hardearned cash. So mp3 swapping and word of mouth has meant that Drake's legacy has been recognised. Again, if he'd been alive, I contend this still would have happened. Neil Young's magical On The Beach was only released on CD a few years back and has quickly become one of my favourite records. This time of musical richness has allowed us to explore the forgotten. I find it insulting to the talent of the musician to insist that death is a good career move.

I think a more interesting and valuable angle for you and I to explore is how the age of digital music allows us to archive and enjoy bygone music. And to try to imagine what this might mean for the future of the music industry as it is today.

By stephen on   Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Re: Dying: A Great Career Move

Hi Stephen,

I appreciate your comment but my intention wasn't to draw parallels between Drake and Smith at all.

Essentially, the point I was trying to make is that one of the reasons (after his genius of course) why Smith is my favourite musician is that he can never dissapoint me. He can't release anything that will make me re-evaluate my opinion of him. That's not to say, were he still alive, that he would produce rubbish. However, his death, shocking as it was, protects me as a fan from that possibility.

Drake on the other hand, as I point out, has had a far better posthumous career than he did when he was alive, in terms of sales and in terms of respect. I don't think, as you suggest, that this would still have happened had he been alive, I honestly don't, otherwise I wouldn't have included it.

The only similarity between the two is that I have heard many, many musicians namecheck Smith recently and when you ask them how they got into him they tell you "From a Basement." To me that's a shame, but it's also a reality. That's why I used it as a link.

Perhaps my title was a little insensitive, but the fact remains that dead musicians can't lose fans/respect in the way living ones can.

By Idiot Kid on   Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Re: Dying: A Great Career Move

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