Whitney Houston‘s career is getting a post-mortem boost, but it isn’t likely to be as big as the one that enriched the King of Pop’s estate after his death.
Like the late Michael Jackson, Houston was in the midst of an attempted career revival. She was found dead at age 48 on Saturday in her Los Angeles hotel room on the eve of the Grammys, a stage she once ruled.
It could be weeks before the coroner’s office completes toxicology tests that could establish the cause of death.
In an outpouring of grief — and a desire to remember her soaring voice and upbeat personality — Houston’s fans have propelled her decades-old recordings to the top of sales charts on iTunes and Amazon.com. Twitter recorded more than 2.5 million Tweets about her within two hours of her death.
In the day and a half after she died, U.S. sales of Houston’s albums skyrocketed. Weekly sales through Sunday jumped nearly 60 times the previous week’s level to 101,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Radio airplay soared and her best-selling single, “I Will Always Love You,” jumped to 195,000 downloads in the week through Sunday, up from just 3,000 the week prior. Online music service Spotify said Houston’s songs were streamed 2.4 million times between Saturday and Sunday alone.
Not unlike Jackson’s posthumous star turn in the movie “This Is It,” Houston will star in a film that is set for release this fall. In addition, dozens of the six-time Grammy-winner’s unreleased recordings may someday be released to a public grieving her loss.
“It really is a finite universe of celebrities that are able to transcend their own death to create commercial opportunities,” said David Reeder, vice president at GreenLight, a subsidiary of Corbis Images that helps license the images and work of late icons such as Albert Einstein and Johnny Cash. “People want to remember her back in 1986 at her peak, when nobody was doing it better than she was.”
As a former model who crossed racial barriers, Houston’s image might find a home with a fashion brand, much like Elizabeth Taylor, who continues to grace fragrances, or Audrey Hepburn, who has been given numerous tributes by clothing companies long after her passing.
If Houston breaks into Forbes’ list of top-earning dead celebrities in 2012, she will likely get in “towards the bottom end” with single-digit millions of dollars, Reeder said. Michael Jackson dominated the list in 2010 and 2011, after his death three years ago.
Mark Roesler, chief executive of CMG Worldwide, a company that collects licensing revenue for the estates of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and others, said fans will be looking to fill the hole Houston left behind on the eve of music’s biggest night.
“For all those reasons, it creates a situation where people feel like something’s been taken away from them,” he said.
There are no signs that Houston made savvy investments like “the gloved one.” Jackson had a 50 percent stake of one of the world’s largest music publishing catalogs, Sony/ATV. Houston was known for her voice, but not for songwriting, which can generate lucrative revenue from years of radio play.
Consider that many of her top-selling songs were written by others. “I Will Always Love You” was a song that Dolly Parton wrote and sang in 1974. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (1987) was written by George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam and “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” (1987) was written by Michael Masser and Will Jennings, according to the National Music Publishers Association.
Houston’s image took a hit after her appearances in the Bravo reality TV show Being Bobby Brown in 2005. To many, the documentary series with her ex-husband was a cautionary tale about a drug-fueled lifestyle that damaged her voice and ruined her career.
A hard-partying existence contributed to her failure to fulfill a $100 million recording deal she signed with Arista, now part of Sony Music Entertainment, in 2001. At the time she was reported to have owed the label six new albums and two greatest hits compilations. Since then, only four have come out, including a greatest hits collection that was not released in the United States.
It’s unclear if any posthumous releases would be part of that recording deal or if the agreement is still in force. A spokeswoman for Sony Music and for her longtime producer, Clive Davis, declined to comment. Houston’s publicist did not respond to requests for comment.
Lawyer Bryan Blaney, who represented Houston in a recent fight with her stepmother over the proceeds of a $1 million life insurance policy she took out on her father, said he did not handle her financial affairs. He said that if the singer did not have a will, the proceeds of any continuing revenues would go to her 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.
Whatever the case, as the remembrances of Houston continue, her estate will likely be flush with a stream of money that had slowed to a trickle in recent years.
Although she sold 22.6 million albums in the U.S. in her lifetime — half of those through the best-selling 1992 soundtrack to The Bodyguard — her latest release, I Look To You, sold just 978,000 since its debut in 2009, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
It’s not clear whether Houston had debts, but she lost homes in New Jersey and Georgia to foreclosure several years ago, and some reports said she had recently tried to borrow small amounts of money from friends.
Renewed interest in Houston may continue for some time.
Later this year, the singer will appear in the film, Sparkle, in which she plays a mother concerned about the influence of fame and drugs on her three daughters, who form a singing group.
Houston sings a gospel song on camera and a duet with co-star Jordin Sparks over the credits in the film, which began shooting in October. The movie and a soundtrack are set for wide release in August through Sony Corp.’s TriStar Pictures.
“She was on top of her game,” said executive producer Howard Rosenman, who saw a rough cut of the movie on Friday, a day before the singer’s death. “She was really coming back.”
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