Two decades ago, celebrity licensing skewed strongly toward merchandise tied to the estates of deceased musicians, actors, and athletes, rather than living personalities. The thinking was that estates were less risky; not only had the celebrity’s fame often stood the test of time, but there was no danger of bad behavior causing problems for licensees.
Celebrity licensing has turned 180 degrees since then. While celebrities’ estates continue to be involved in licensing, of course, the market is dominated by living celebrities. Even personalities with short-lived moments of fame or who are just coming into the public’s consciousness are lending their names to consumer products these days. And bad behavior is often no longer a detriment to licensing.
That said, the death of a beloved celebrity can still have a positive impact on his or her licensing initiatives. A mini-case study of this phenomenon was noted at Licensing International Expo this year with the prominence of properties related to David Bowie, who passed away in January at age 69:
- Live Nation counts Bowie among the more than five dozen musicians for whom it creates merchandise and/or oversees licensing. Items such as t-shirts, earbuds, magnets, and calendars sold through retailers from Macy’s to H&M and Hot Topic feature Bowie’s likeness, logos, or album artwork.
- U.K. agent TBSA was prominently featuring Terry O’Neill’s David Bowie Collection. O’Neill is a photographer known for his rock images from the 1960s and 1970s, including from Bowie’s early career. TBSA represents O’Neill and photographer Baron Wolman on behalf of Iconic Images, overseers of a vast archive of celebrity, music, and fashion photography.
- Jim Henson Productions was touting the classic film Labyrinth, which stars Bowie as the Goblin King and marks its 30th anniversary this year. Bowie’s image is featured in much of the artwork for the film. Recent licensees include Trademark Products and Zen Monkey Studios for apparel in the U.K. and U.S., respectively, Funko for collectible figures, Insight Editions for an art book, and River Horse for board games.
These three Bowie-related programs reflect how a celebrity’s passing can boost the visibility of associated licensing efforts. They also illustrate the fragmentation that can sometimes occur around celebrity-estate licensing, with multiple programs centering on the same celebrity co-existing in parallel.