The Most Popular Deceased Musicians
Music has the power to conjure up strong emotions and memories in a way very few things in life can. As a result, musicians and their work take on special meaning for people all across the world, creating legions of fans that listen to their music, attend their concerts, and buy their merchandise.
Even after artists pass away, the beat goes on for their fans—the artistic legacy they leave behind remains for their fans to enjoy forever. Some of the most beloved musical artists see their legend grow after their passing. Our favorite artists achieve a sort of cultural immortality through a host of mediums like playlists, tattoos, posters, and t-shirts.
At Custom Ink, we love music and have a special interest in t-shirts (obviously), so the intersection of the two has long been a favorite subject of ours.
When considering that intersection in the context of musical giants like Prince and David Bowie, we began to wonder how fans from around the globe react to these tragic events, in both the long- and short-term. What we found when we dove into the available data was just too interesting not to share.
We started by looking at how much an artist’s untimely passing motivates fans to seek out things like the posters, shirts, and albums of the musician in question. To find which musical deaths spurred the largest increases in the number of people seeking out merchandise, we looked at Google Trends data. This data allowed us to analyze changes in search terms relating to merch for artists from the week before and the week after their passing. Google Trends only captures data after 2004, so only artists that passed away after that year were included in this portion of our research.
While Michael Jackson was one of the most famous entertainers in the world for decades and his death made global headlines, it was a jazzier singer, Amy Winehouse, that actually produced the biggest change in search volume. The Grammy Award-winner’s death caused a jump from 0 all the way to the maximum of 100 in just a few short weeks. Michael Jackson did come close to matching Winehouse, however, as his death produced a jump in merchandise interest that fell just short of tying her at 100. MJ and Amy Winehouse are the only two artists in our evaluation who produced interest spikes above 90.
While we focused on the United States for the majority of our study, the artists featured in the above graphic are recognized globally for the impact their loss had on the corresponding country.
When looking at the list of musicians whose passing made global waves, we noticed that most of them fit a certain pattern—rock and roll artists with long and storied careers. This makes sense, since some rock stars are successful enough to undertake multiple world tours over the course of their careers, giving them a global audience.
We also weren’t surprised to see that international artists had a major impact on their home countries. Merchandise commemorating Canadians Gord Downie and Leonard Cohen were highly sought out in the wake of their deaths, and the same held true in the United Kingdom for Englishmen David Bowie and George Michael.
One of the more interesting results that came out of this investigation was the revelation that both Johnny and Tommy Ramone of the legendary band The Ramones produced interest spikes in Germany. After looking into it, we found that even though the band is from New York City, their bassist, Dee Dee Ramone, actually grew up in Berlin—the band even references Germany in a number of songs! The connection between the band and Germany is so strong that Berlin is actually home to the Ramones Museum.
Some wins were pretty obvious: Prince dominated in his home state of Minnesota, and legendary artists like Biggie Smalls and Kurt Cobain took the top spots in their home states of New York and Washington, respectively. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia also won the state of Vermont, and Ben and Jerry’s (proudly from Vermont) even named their beloved Cherry Garcia in his honor.
One of the more surprising upsets was that unlike Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur was not the most popular artist in his home state of California. Despite being the top name in West Coast hip hop for many music fans, it was actually a different Cali rapper that took the top spot: Nate Dogg. Fear not Tupac fans, Makaveli did find his way to the top spot in Louisiana and South Carolina.
We also wanted to use this data to see which artist has the most posthumous popularity in different regions of the country. To determine this, we broke America into groupings used by the United States Census and calculated which artist took the most states in that region. In instances where multiple artists tied, we declared the winner based on who won the state with the highest population.
Not surprisingly, artists that finished first in the highest percentage of states performed well here also. Freddie Mercury was the most popular deceased artist in five total states, the highest total of any artist in this accounting. With the musician claiming 10% of the country, it makes sense that he would claim at least one of the nation’s nine regions, but Freddie did even better than that by taking the top spot in both the West South Central and the East North Central regions.
Johnny Cash took four total states in this evaluation, tied for second most total. Half of those states fell in the West North Central region, helping him win that part of the country. Matching Cash in the number of states where they are most missed is a much more contemporary artist, Swedish-born Avicii, who passed away in April 2018 at the age of 28.
While Avicii was the most missed deceased artist in four states just like Cash, the diversity of those states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Florida) actually made him the most missed artist in two different regions: New England and the South Atlantic. The remaining regions of America went to musicians with strong ties to those areas, with Biggie, Nate Dogg, Elvis Presley, and Chester Bennington all proving most popular after passing in the regions containing their home states.
No matter what your musical taste, there is no denying the cultural impact these musicians had. While we may not sell the shirts or merchandise of these legendary artists, Custom Ink knows how much t-shirts and other apparel can make people feel closer to the people they love and idolize.