Don't fear the reaper, musicians: You might be worth more dead than alive

If there’s a rock & roll heaven,” sang the Righteous Brothers, ”well, you know they’ve got a hell of a band.” And it’s a hot one. Witness the recent Grammy nominations, which singled out Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Rosemary Clooney, Celia Cruz, George Harrison, and Warren Zevon — all passed on to that great recording studio in the sky. Then there’s Forbes’ annual list of the top-earning deceased celebs, which is dominated by musicians (including No. 1 Elvis Presley, who raked in $40 million for his estate September 2002 — 03, despite his death in 1977).

”For a musical artist, income stems from the worth of his recorded catalog — his body of work — and the amount of publicity he gets,” says Jay Fishman, principal at Kroll, Inc., a Philadelphia company that appraises the brand value of celebrities. ”Dying can give a boost to both of them.” While it’s nothing new for labels to release compilations or previously unreleased tracks after an artist’s demise, now a media giant can exploit an amazing variety of ways to package a dead poet’s material and flog it worldwide. Death is no obstacle for DJ remixes, duets, and samples — not to mention books (this year saw at least 10 on the Beatles, as well as the release of the Let it Be… Naked CD), boxed sets (Cash’s not-so-subtly titled Unearthed), or car commercials (remember Nick Drake’s ethereal ”Pink Moon”?). Even live performance isn’t off-limits to those no longer with us: A video resurrection of Frank Sinatra played to sold-out crowds at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall for a week in October.

But Tupac Shakur, who rapped about seeing his ”casket buried” and left behind a trove of unreleased tracks, truly has unleashed the perfect posthumous storm. Since his 1996 murder, he’s dropped more albums (six) than while he was alive (four). His 2003 hits include the movie and soundtrack Tupac: Resurrection and the Eminem-produced single ”Running (Dying to Live).” A clothing line, a new album out in February, and an upcoming authorized novel about his jail term will continue to pocket dollars for his estate, which was valued at $12 million last year, up from $7 million in 2001.

As Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) said: ”Once you’re dead, you’re made for life.”