Whitney Houston fans bought over 100,000 copies of her albums after her death. That is a tribute literally paid too late. Sad to say, but rewards aren’t always paid to those who did the work. Estates can become perpetual based on an ancestor’s efforts. Corporations can profit from dead companies. Politicians can claim credit that should go to advocates. The best way for the artist, the entrepreneur, the social innovator to be thanked for their efforts are for the rest of us to say thank you now rather than later. That’s our job, and our opportunity.
I won’t pretend to be a fan of Ms. Houston. I don’t know enough about her or her work. I enjoy dancing, but I remember names like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. My favorite music was created decades before I was born. Any homage I pay to those artists goes to their estate, their reputation, their distributor, their industry, and maybe to their spirit if they can hear me from the afterlife. By my own logic I should concentrate more on finding living artists and appreciating their efforts, and buying their music. I do a bit of that (thank you Jamie Cullum and Jimmy Buffett) , but I am frugal enough that I listen to free music.
Ms. Houston’s estate will be well-funded. Hopefully some philanthropies will benefit. Many charities rely on bequeathments. I just spent the morning clearing resurgent blackberries from around recently planted saplings at Hammons Preserve, a Whidbey Camano Land Trust property created at the direction of Mr. Hammons. What was a farm is being returned to a more natural state, with open space reserved for some great views. Money, land, and stock are frequent items in wills, but intellectual property can also be a valuable heritage.
Inventions, books, songs, anything with a copyright has the potential to enrich others. Tonight I’m teaching my class in Modern Self-Publishing. One of the issues I bring up is, “Who is the work’s beneficiaries?” If one of my books suddenly begins to sell well after my death, I want to make sure that the profits go to something I support, even if that is as simple as directing it to family and friends rather than a publisher. Thoreau probably didn’t see the majority of the profits from On Walden Pond, especially because it hasn’t stopped selling.
What happens after an artist dies is moot to the artist. They’re dead.
What matters to an artist that is trying to survive from their art is what happens while they are alive. Most struggling artists look forward to not struggling. Compliments are fine. Sales are better. I am more likely to buy local art because I recognize the direct impact it has on a person and their community. Off-shore mass production diffuses a local economy. That may be why the world’s societies are in such great change. Internal supports have been weakened or removed and replaced by external supports like interconnectivity through globalization.
Within the corporate world ideas follow a similar fate. Entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators may start up companies that succeed, but they are more likely to fail for lack of support. Their ideas can continue though. Microvision, a story stock I mention frequently, is well-known for having many good ideas. Their ideas for electronic displays are so positively disruptive that they could redefine the industry. Yet, the company is probably going to undergo a reverse split to avoid delisting (Splitting Stocks) because they don’t have the cash position and the subsequent stock price to maintain full listing on the NASDAQ. An entire suite of their ideas for another technology (electro-optical switching and organic materials) was spun off into another company, Lumera, which was bought and merged with another company, GigOptix (GGOX.OB), which is now producing profits from those idea. Microvision doesn’t benefit from the success. They settled for the cash from selling the stock back when they were in a crunch. Reach back far enough and there are inventors that preceded all of the companies that may only benefit from their initial cash payout, or maybe only from a sense of satisfaction that their ideas are being pursued. At least within the investing world I can track these stocks and invest in them, but those investments are swung by the cash, or lack of cash, that the companies experience prior to becoming profitable.
It happens in government as well. Legislation is passed with politician ceremonies, but I recall learning that civil rights, women’s suffrage, and abolition were initiated by citizen activists. Yes, they may be mentioned at the ceremonies, but the beneficiary is usually society and the politician with the pen. The people who did the work try to pay the rent with thanks.
Our society is imperfect. No surprise. Yet I am encouraged because we are getting closer to appreciating people for what they do and when they do it. Five hundred years ago great efforts would rarely be recorded. Now it is at least possible to trace back to origins and originators. Historically, most creative and productive people can be too busy creating and being productive to spend time getting noticed. The few that were paid well enough may have been lucky, or very aware that it would unlikely for anyone else to do that for them. Of course, some were simply self-centered and totally devoid of humility. Fifty years from now it may be impossible to totally lose sight of who deserves the credit because everything is being recorded and made searchable.
Whitney Houston’s death and subsequent sales have made me reflect on thanking and acknowledging the people who are here now. Of course, not everyone is an artist. Money isn’t everything. And sometimes a compliment is enough, and more than they’ve ever received. What an interesting way to look at the day, “Today I’m going to hand out a reward. I wonder who gets it?”