This week, music lost another one of its true rock heroes in Tom Petty. He embodied the essence of rock ‘n’ roll in every such way, with a catalog spanning dozens of classic hits over multiple decades, including “American Girl”, “Learning to Fly” and “Free Fallin” to name a few.
The news of Petty’s passing is sad, as it marks the loss of another icon from rock’s greatest era. Many of these recently deceased heroes – David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Greg Allman, Chris Cornell, to name a handful – were icons for an entire generation of music culture. They were figures at the forefront of social waves that dominated culture at various points in the last half century and each of their deaths have been mourned greatly, especially for the people who lived through their careers and experienced that fandom first hand.
But with each door that closes, opens a new one. These music related deaths have not only reassured the timeless quality of albums like Heroes and Full Moon Fever, they have also allowed a whole new generation of fans to be turned on to the music of some of rock’s all-time greats. With each of these sad events comes a guaranteed storm of social media posts and public tributes that receive massive news coverage. Often times publications will even customize playlists for you to remember these artists’ greatest moments or for you to familiarize yourself with the them for the first time (shout-out Noisey).
I’ve found myself in that exact place on multiple occasions over the past two years. When David Bowie died in early 2016, the onslaught of press his passing received on the internet immediately inspired me to dive deeper into his discography than ever before. I knew the smash hits, “Under Pressure”, “Let’s Dance” or “Ziggy Stardust”, but I didn’t know about the creative genius that manifested boundary pushing albums like Station to Station and Low. Due to his death, and a spooky good time-of-death album, I was put onto the less commercial but richly artistic underbelly of one of music’s most important figures of the last five decades.
Eight days later, I felt a similar effect after the death of Eagles founding member Glenn Frey. His passing took on a whole new level of nostalgia for me, as I grew up listening to the band (read my Eagles post here). Frey was the voice behind some of the most memorable songs of the ’70s, and similarly to Bowie, after his death I spent quite a bit of time revisiting the B-sides of Eagles’ records, as well as exploring the work of related artists like Jackson Browne and The Flying Burrito Brothers. I ended up falling in love with a lot of songs I previously never knew existed, growing my appreciation for good ol’ California rock even more.
Both Bowie and Frey’s deaths led me down of path of discovery, pointing me towards new records I hadn’t heard before and allowing me to connect the dots between some of rock’s old phenomenons and classic works. But on a much bigger note, the impact of these deaths has enabled much more than my own personal knowledge and enjoyment of these artists. From Bowie to Chris Cornell, and now Tom Petty, the sales and streaming of each respective artist has seen a dramatic spike in the time immediately following their death.
Between his solo work and that of his multiple bands, Cornell’s sales and streams jumped 552 percent in the day following his death. Bowie’s numbers were even more eye-popping, largely in part to the release of his final album Blackstar just two days before he died. Not counting Blackstar, his sales and streaming still jumped over 3,000 percent. Most recently, Petty’s work saw over a 6,000 percent increase in sales and streaming following his death. On October 2 alone, his music garnered over 7 million audio streams in the United States.
These enormous numbers come as no surprise, given the magnitude of these guys’ careers. And with the rise of streaming services their entire lives’ work is now right at our fingertips, only a few clicks away. Where these statistics truly impress me is not in the amount of sales they represent, but instead, they amaze me in the vast number of people they have reached.
Some people are fortunate to have grown up listening to musicians from the past, but there are also a lot of people who aren’t exposed to older music in their youth. There’s nothing wrong with that, as not everyone has the time or the interest to learn about and listen to stuff from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s. However, a lot of people do have the interest, they have just never been aware.
The deaths of these rock icons have served as the perfect introduction point into countless historic discographies for millions of new fans. The giant news storm that coincides with each death allows each artist’s light to find passage into modern day music culture. Because of this, their music and legacy will continue to live on. So when you see your favorite band next month and they cover “Wildflowers” in the middle of their set, don’t be surprised when everyone sings along.
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Featured image by Scott Wallace.