You can’t stop the music, even when its creator has shuffled off this mortal coil. That’s evident in the makeup of our Halloween-spooky ranking of highest-paid dead celebrities, where nine musicians grace the list of 13, up from just six a year ago.
Even as physical sales continue their long decline, those nine acts—including Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Nipsey Hussle—generated 15.2 billion streaming spins over the past year in the U.S., up 38.5% from the prior 12 months. That sort of consumption offers the departed a second career from beyond the grave.
“In the physical world, it would die down to the point where that stuff just wasn’t carried anymore,” says David Bakula, Nielsen’s Senior VP of Insight and Analytics. “That barrier’s been removed, and it’s just simply as long as you’re still thinking about that artist, you’re still going to go in and play it with really no friction at all.”
Earnings for the 13 dead celebrities are essentially flat compared with last year if you remove Michael Jackson’s windfall of almost $300 million from the sale of his EMI publishing stake. That sale boosted the total earnings to $628 million last year, compared with $285 million in 2019, with the dips of non-musicians like Arnold Palmer canceling out the streaming gains. Read on to see the full list—featuring estimated earnings from October 2018 to October 2019—if you dare.
The top-earning dead celebrities of 2019
13 | GEORGE HARRISON: $9 million
Like bandmate Lennon, Harrison has benefited from Beatles’ reissues—as well as the Fab Four’s Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas—vaulting him back into our rankings for the first time since 2011.
12 | WHITNEY HOUSTON: $9.5 million
The $7 million sale this May of half her estate, along with the success of the Kygo remix of her “Higher Love” cover—which has already clocked over 175 million Spotify spins—paved the way for Houston’s debut on our list.
11 | XXXTENTACION: $10 million
Even after a 27% drop in year-over-year consumption, the polarizing South Florida rapper remains the most-streamed dead celebrity in the U.S. with 5.6 billion spins.
10 | NIPSEY HUSSLE: $11 million
Business savvy is eternal: Nipsey’s prescient focus on retaining the rights to his music monetized his 1.85 billion streams, third-most of any act on our list, at a greater rate than most artists dead or alive.
9 | PRINCE: $12 million
The Purple One continues to move music, including a robust 320,000 physical units and half a billion on-demand streams, an overall increase of 12% year-over-year.
8 | MARILYN MONROE: $13 million
One of the most popular dearly departed stars when it comes to licensing, Monroe has added a Zales collection to deals with the likes of Chanel and Montblanc.
7 | JOHN LENNON: $14 million
The 50th anniversary of Abbey Road has boosted the Beatles across streaming and digital—moving 2.2 million U.S. album-equivalents over the past year, more than any defunct act—with Lennon’s own catalogue leaping 52%.
6 | DR. SEUSS: $19 million
Oh, the places he still goes! Licensing deals with Hallmark, Universal Studios and others add to publishing empire that moved more than 5 million books stateside over the past 12 months.
5 | BOB MARLEY: $20 million
With nearly 1 billion streaming spins in the U.S., the ubiquity of Marley’s music keeps his House of Marley products—including headphones, speakers and turntables—from going up in smoke.
4 | ARNOLD PALMER: $30 million
The golf legend’s empire remains well above par, thanks to partnerships with MasterCard and Rolex. Then there’s his eponymous Arizona beverage, plus a boozy version launched by MolsonCoors this year.
3 | CHARLES SCHULZ: $38 million
Snoopy’s creator continues to cash in around his Peanuts franchise’s 70th anniversary. A licensing deal with Met Life, expiring this year, also adds double-digit millions to his eternal coffers.
2 | ELVIS PRESLEY: $39 million
For decades, 500,000-plus visitors have made the pilgrimage to Graceland annually, prompting a recent $45 million addition called Elvis Presley’s Memphis. Up next: a biopic directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Tom Hanks.
1 | MICHAEL JACKSON: $60 million
The King of Pop’s streaming surged despite recent controversy: 2.1 billion U.S. spins, up from 1.8 billion a year ago. With proceeds flowing from his Mijac Music catalog, a Las Vegas show and a long-term deal with Sony, he retains his postmortem cash crown for the seventh consecutive year.
Our annual list of the top-earning dead celebrities measures pretax income from October 1, 2018 through October 1, 2019. We compile our numbers with the help of data from Nielsen Music, IMDBPro and interviews with industry insiders. Fees for agents, managers and lawyers are not deducted.