The Music Never Dies     

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12/10/2004 3:50:46 AM
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Despite lingering rumors to the contrary, it's safe to say that Tupac Shakur is dead.

So why does he keep putting out records?

The rapper's latest posthumous release, "Loyal to the Game," shows up in stores next week in time for the holidays. It's the seventh 2Pac record (not including greatest-hits and remix collections) to emerge since he was shot down in Las Vegas eight years ago.

The punch line about Shakur's output in death can be explained by his prolificacy in life. The man who helped canonize the West Coast gangsta sound committed loads of unreleased material to tape before his unsolved murder. The demand for those songs is understandable. When Shakur was gunned down - at the age of 25 - he was one of America's most famous musicians.

But by dying young and famous, he joined a much more exclusive club. Like Elvis, Marilyn, Jimi and John, Shakur became one of those celebrities whose career continues to flourish and even diversify in death.

In 2002, Shakur entered Forbes' list of top-earning deceased celebrities at No. 10. His rank dwindled slightly on the latest list, published in October, but he still came in with a respectable $5 million in 2004, edging out Frank Sinatra at No. 20.

People have bought more than 30 million of his records since he died in 1996 - several times more than he sold as a living artist. And that tally will grow with this latest release, thanks in part to the participation of Eminem, who produced the album and also raps on it, along with 50 Cent and other word-slingers who weren't even a twinkle in Tupac's eye.

Could it be possible that the dead rapper owes part of this posthumous glory to Elvis Presley?

When the King died in 1977, there wasn't much room on the market for late icons. Death was still a career killer. Within a few years, however, the Elvis estate (directed by his ex-wife, Priscilla) began to strategically cash in on his legacy. By promoting and licensing Elvis' image and work - while fiercely defending it from infringement - Elvis Presley Enterprises (as the business entity is known today) can still haul in $40 million a year.

Needless to say, Elvis consistently tops the Forbes chart.

One of the people who helped gild the King's retirement from life was Mark Roesler. In 1981, he became the licensing agent for the Elvis Presley Estate and went on to shape the industry with his own company. As head of CMG Worldwide, he manages the market presence of some of the biggest stars in the business - many of whom happen to be deceased, including Princess Diana, Malcolm X, Babe Ruth and Buddy Holly.

"In the early '80s, if you were dead and gone, you were kind of forgotten. There wasn't the real interest in nostalgia that you see today," Roesler says.

He helped the heirs of such celebrities to lay claim in court to their famous legacies, which Roesler handles as product and person.

"The reality of it is that these personalities have become brands. A James Dean, a Marilyn, an Elvis, they've become brands today in a way that's not much different than a Ralph Lauren," Roesler says.

By jealously guarding and burnishing such brands, Roesler and his staff have brokered deals to license Marilyn's image to a winemaker and even a high-end diamond collection. Humphrey Bogart can be seen in magazines and on billboards endorsing a line of furniture.

So why not Johnny Cash cologne? Or Lana Turner lingerie?

"I think there's only a handful [of dead celebrities] that have really a significant amount of power to generate sales," said Charles Riotto, president of the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association. "But having said that, not everyone has to be Elvis to have a decent revenue stream."

It may seem like a macabre business equation, but the stars that exit this world prematurely leave the most robust brands.

"Death can increase the currency [of the brand] because
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