Measuring Up To Elvis

Following up on my earlier Why Elvis Remains the Bar and some semi-recent news items that would like to proclaim the King is off or at least having to share the throne; specifically about Mariah Carey getting more number 1 singles, Glee surpassing Elvis chart records and most erroneously, Michael Jackson topping Elvis on the Forbes dead celebrity earning list.

Forbes Dead Celebrity Earnings Lists

Elvis has been the number one dead celebrity earner in all but three years that Forbes has calculated the list. The first time Elvis was bumped to number two was the year that Courtney Love sold Kurt Cobains’ catalog for Cobains one and only appearance on the list.

Elvis made is lowest appearance on the list in 2009 with $55 million, the year of Jackson’s death – Elvis ranked at number four with Jackson’s debut at number three with $90 million in earnings – shattering expectations of an outrageous lead of a record first place.

Jackson was defeated in the race to number one by the sale of the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog for a total earnings of $235 million and the liquidation of Yves St. Laurent’s estate at $350 million.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s earnings were from their catalog sales and St. Laurent’s estate was liquidation of artwork and assets that had been invested and collected – so the earnings, to my mind, should have been credited to the artists who made the sold works, even though the money didn’t flow to their estates.

That brings us to putting 2010 into view. The 2010 list has Jackson as the number one dead earning celebrity and Elvis as the second.

Jackson’s  estate took in $250 million for 2010;  alleged to be largely due to the release of his rehearsal footage for his never given “This Is It” concerts. But, I think a careful review of revenues would show that these earning came from from Jackson’s investment in The Beatles catalog with the Rock Band video game and the final release of The Beatles as a complete catalog box set – in both stereo and mono.

Especially given that in terms of box office, Myles Cyrus’ Hannah Montana concert film had a better opening weekend than This is It.

Elvis holds number two this year with $60 million for 2010. Which is what his estate took in, largely through Graceland Tourism, merchandise and sales of his post 1973 recordings.

What money was earned due to Elvis’ catalog doesn’t get included as part of Elvis’ estate earnings – since all sales of his catalog pre 1973 is Sony’s profits – not Elvis’ earnings – so in terms of what Elvis’ catalog actually earns, this is not reflected in any of the Forbes lists because the estate gets not a penny.

In 1973, Elvis was forced to sell his interest in his back catalog to RCA to refinance his divorce. When Elvis and Priscilla initially divorced, Elvis simply agreed to pay what she demanded – but, Priscilla ended up suing for more money then and spendaholic Elvis didn’t have the cash.

Parker negotiated what he thought was a sweet deal to re-sell to RCA what had already been sold with no thought to the longer term value – Parker simply in his immediate greed for cash, forgot the lessons that they had learned from Elvis sales in the 1950s – that there was no limit to how many times fans would buy re-packaged Elvis.

In 1973, no one suspected that Elvis didn’t have years and decades ahead of him to continue to record more material – but it’s interesting that the urgency of fear that Elvis was just a fad in the 50’s and to get while the getting was good overrode the longer view that Elvis could (and is) endless repackaged and re-sold to fans would be more sustainable income.

Priscilla received a larger settlement, Parker took 50% of the sales and Elvis ended up with a pittance and no back catalog to rely on for future income – it’s no wonder that Elvis would soon be deeper into drugs and not trusting even his longest running friend – Red West.

Elvis the man meant less to the people around him than Elvis the ATM.

Elvis got so little recognition and credit for his work when he was alive that him topping this list is a testament to his lasting legacy – although given that the money is more sourced by Graceland and merchandise than his catalog, Elvis’ placement is a testament to how much he was loved and meant to his fans, who continue to be as disrespected as Elvis in that we are treated as ATM machines and pawned off with ridiculous and tacky merchandise, endless and thoughtless repackages – but, as when Elvis was alive – the marketing of Elvis responds to the market – so the movies got cheaper when we the fans weren’t critical and Elvis became disillusioned – confused why he had such a devoted following, but knowing he was putting out inferior product to his capacity so knew on a level that it was an unearned and uncritical following.

We get the Elvis we deserve, not unlike we get the government we deserve with low voter turnout and disengagement.

It is difficult to quantify subjective things like what a given person’s impact in social and art contributions terms, so we rely on the vulgar measure of money: how much money is generated. Curious then, like with the St. Laurent liquidation that the artists who created the art that he purchased and the estate sold were credited to the investor, not the creator who sold the works for a paltry sum compared to what the investor “earned” for their later sale. – If a painting original sells for a few hundred or thousand dollars it is less impressive than when that same painting later sells for millions or tens of millions.

Charts: Elvis vs Mariah Carey and Glee

A change in technology and the rules of the organizations that maintain charts will always favour current recording artists over decades ago and deceased ones. Which, is rightfully so, since the living should be more important than the dead.

However, it is tricky when you are not giving consideration to the person, but hyping and measuring sales.

In the fifties, a gold record was a million seller and sixty years later,  gold record is a half million seller and a million is platinum.

In the fifties, Elvis was the second artist who ever sold a million copies of a 45 single and he was the first artist who sold consistent million selling singles after million selling singles. So, the fact of assigning gold and platinum records is a result of Elvis’ sales.

So it is difficult to claim that any artist has sold more than Elvis or earned more accolades, when that we even count and measure these accolades is because of Elvis in the first place.

So, how someone else does on a scale that exists because of Elvis compared to Elvis…well no matter how anyone rates on the chart, Elvis will remain the chart itself until some other artist has such an impact as to change how we measure artists against each other.

As for technology, to have a million selling single in the fifties, an artists had to record an A and B side, the record had to have good radio play, the artist had to appear on tv or tour and the record had to sell;which meant that people had to take the time and effort to go to a store and buy the physical record, limited access by number of copies available and distribution and how fast records put be pressed and shipped. Record sales could stall while waiting for more product to be available.

Today, an artist can record one song and put it up on itunes and do an internet campaign and people have to download it. Minimal effort on the part of the artist, the label and the fan.

A download represents less commitment and more curiosity – music is a downloadable and disposal commodity, as opposed to an investment in a physical collection, which requires space and time throughout the ownership of the disc, rather than allocating file space in increasingly unlimited digital media.

Mariah Carey matching Elvis for number 1 hit records, first is not beating Elvis, only matching Elvis – and the market for music is now so fragmented that artists can have a number of huge selling success, but remain largely unknown outside of their specific audience.

Few artists achieve a mainstream/cross over success or even awareness, regardless of how talented or deserving. Mariah Carey is far more known for her diva conduct than her music.

When Elvis started, the music industry was in silos and Elvis broke the barriers of white vs black music – and Elvis recorded any music that appealed to him – he sang country, blues, rock, showtunes, folk tunes from several countries, funk, bossa nova/latin, swamp rock and gospel – Elvis is in more Music Halls of Fame than any other performer – Elvis truly was something for everyone.

While most artists achieve success with a specific demographic and type of music – just repeating the same over and over without ever reinventing or trying new styles.

With the size and ease of music collecting and listening, the audience today is at once cavernous yet still in style silos, as most people tend to be attracted to a narrower range of music.

Although, I find it endlessly hysterical when young people discover the rebellious music that their parents or even grandparents listened to – such was the dismay of the young girl in the late 80’s who, bringing home a cd of the Lost Boys soundtrack was looking forward to freaking out her Mom with this Jim Morrison lead singer of the Door – until it was pointed out to her that Morrison had been dead before she was born and her Mom could probably introduce her to their original vinyl and Janice Joplin besides.

As for Glee – like with Elvis and The Beatles – there was one Elvis who had to have all the appeal for his fans, while there was four Beatles to chose from – so an ensemble cast recording cover tunes of proven hit songs is not at all comparable even to the Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch who at least recorded original songs and are more properly the basis for comparison.

Elvis didn’t have a regular tv show to showcase his performances or songs, like the Monkees did and Elvis, while he recorded covers, did so in a different style as well as original songs – so as fun and good as the Glee cast is – the songs are covers of hit songs that benefit from being a tv show soundtrack and the cast is actors who can sing – not singers who also act. The songs are supported by scripted tv program, not a concert tour, and are not at all comparable to any musical artist, as they are wholly a separate category of repacked and sanitized for increasingly younger audiences.

Glee is to Elvis, as the wholesome and sexually unthreatening white young male teen idol singers that followed the wave of real rockers – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Cochrane and other sexually threatening rockers were.

Elvis brought raw black music and urgent sex to the white teens and Buddy Holly make rock n roll into a higher and refined, pure and innocent – Peggy Sue only got laid after Peggy Sue got married – she wasn’t a girl in high heel sneakers or the temptress Woman from way over town.

That it’s that packaged and sanitized music that is downloaded and file allocated today – and its just not comparable either through the effort of acquiring it from the fans or the critical appreciation of music as a force of nature captured for a moment in a raw and unrefined performance of sexual power – but rather, a wall of sound orchestrated, choreographed and controlled to simulate the real thing.