Forbes’ annual ranking of the highest-paid dead celebrities for the past 12 months reveals a significant decline in earnings, dropping to $470 million, down 70% from the previous year’s record-breaking $1.6 billion. This drop can be attributed to several factors.
The King of Pop returns to the top of the highest-earning dead celebrities list for the first time since 2019 thanks to the Broadway hit MJ: The Musical, which grossed some $85 million in ticket sales over the past year.
Michael Jackson also rings up millions from the Cirque du Soleil show, Michael Jackson ONE, in Las Vegas. His earnings should continue to rise—earlier this year the estate signed onto Michael, a biopic to be directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Jackson’s nephew Jaafar.
More than 40 years after Bob Marley’s death, his music is still in high demand. As are the rights to his name and likeness, which can be found on headphones, speakers, sneakers, and, yes, cannabis. Earlier this year, the first Marley-branded dispensary opened in his native Jamaica. And next year, the movie Bob Marley: One Love, starring Kingsley Ben Adir, hits the big screen.
Though he made his fortune playing golf, Arnold Palmer earns royalties from the sale of his signature half-lemonade, half-iced tea beverage enterprise. In 2018, his namesake beverage brand also launched a spiked line of Arnold Palmer drinks, which has expanded its flavor offerings as the hard tea market grows.
Mariah Carey might be the queen of Christmas, but for generations of music fans Bing remains the king. His estate still rakes in royalties from his music catalog and the use of his songs. Earlier this month, the Crosby estate released the posthumous album Bing Crosby’s Christmas Gems, which brought archival material and rare recordings to streaming services just in time for the holiday season. The new release includes the digital debut of Crosby’s duet with David Bowie, “Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy” but leaves out his biggest hit, White Christmas.
CHARLES M. SCHULZ
Charlie Brown famously got a rock for Halloween, but the Schulz estate has been on a financial roll for more than a decade. The Peanuts gang continued its work with Apple—which now airs its holiday specials—with a line of digital faces for the brand’s watches. Fans of Snoopy, Linus, and Lucy can also stock up on branded cookware at Williams Sonoma, sneakers from Cariuma and Igloo Coolers, brand collaborations which were all released this year. It’s almost better than a visit from the Great Pumpkin.
Young readers still can’t get enough of the books written and illustrated by Theodor Seuss Geisel and his back catalog sales and new releases—like How the Grinch Lost Christmas—make up a majority of his lucrative annual earnings. The rest of Dr. Seuss’ income comes from licensing his classic characters such as the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat, and the Lorax, which increased since last year.
Though Elvis left the building nearly 50 years ago, it’s still good to be the King. Graceland, Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee, saw some 600,000 visitors in the last 12 months, and the estate has multiple sources of income, including tickets and merchandise. After the January death of Elvis’ only daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, from cardiac arrest, his ex-wife, Priscilla, and granddaughter Riley Keough entered into a contentious legal battle for control of the two estates. Keough, a 34-year-old actress who stars in Daisy Jones and the Six, ended up as the sole trustee of both.
Like John Lennon, George Harrison earns a steady income from his years with the Beatles and as a solo musician. The Fab Two also take in a portion from the psychedelic Cirque du Soleil show based on the Beatles catalog, LOVE.
The Beatles may have understood that money can’t buy you love, but just in case they were wrong, the estate of John Lennon has plenty of it. Once again, Lennon earned steady royalties from his individual music catalog as well as his share from Beatles music. That catalog is still growing: this week, the group’s final song together, “Now and Then,” will be released, thanks to the help of artificial intelligence. It’s based on one of Lennon’s demos from the 1970s, which didn’t make the cut for the group’s Anthology album.
Marilyn Monroe’s iconic image is still setting fashion and design trends more than sixty years after her death. The star raked in millions from licensing and merchandising—including an NFT collection with Zeblocks, false lashes, and press-on nails from Kiss, and a lingerie line with Fleur du Mal.
Prince famously called the afterlife “a world of never-ending happiness.” For his estate—and Primary Wave, which owns a stake in his masters royalties, writer’s share, name, and likeness—that means publishing more music. Since Prince’s death in 2016, the Purple One has released three posthumous albums. And later this month, a remastered version of his classic 1991 album Diamonds and Pearls is dropping. The box set features 47 unreleased songs and hours of never-before-seen concert footage.
In one of this year’s few major music catalog deals, the deceased Doors keyboard player and living guitarist Robby Krieger jointly sold their rights to the band’s music to Primary Wave. The acquisition included rights to their recorded music, publishing, trademarks, and merchandising, and related income. Drummer John Densmore and the estate of Jim Morrison maintain their stakes in the Doors’ rights.
Whitney Houston would have turned 60 in 2023—and her fans will always love her. Her estate is simultaneously celebrating its biggest year yet, thanks to a biopic and several brand collaborations. In December, the film Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody grossed nearly $60 million worldwide. And MAC Cosmetics released a makeup collection with the Houston estate, which is run by her sister-in-law, Pat Houston, and Primary Wave.