With the popularity of rock ’n’ roll woven into the fabric of American culture, it’s easy to think of a number of ways you could claim your own slice of musical profits.
But today I want to talk about making money from the music industry in even more unconventional terms.
To be fair, this isn’t a scalable strategy. However, it should get you thinking outside the box. You won’t believe the kind of money some people will pay for an item even tangentially related to a particular artist.
Even in the most morbid of circumstances…
Wanted: Dead or Alive
Kurt Cobain was a talented musician who changed the trajectory of popular music in the early ’90s. After a short, brilliant career, he died by suicide in April 1994.
As with most members of “The 27 Club” — celebrities who famously died at age 27 — fans can’t get enough when it comes to relics of the deceased.
In May, a used paper plate on which Cobain had written the evening’s set list for a 1990 concert at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., was sold at auction for over $22K — crushing the $1–2K pre-auction estimate.
Then just last month, the green cardigan Cobain wore during Nirvana’s live MTV Unplugged performance in November 1993 sold for an astonishing $334K.
Perhaps even more unbelievable, the sweater hasn’t been washed in 26 years. It sold for over a quarter of a million dollars as is — stains, cigarette burns and all.
As Darren Julien of Julien’s Auctions explained to Rolling Stone:
Rock ’n’ roll memorabilia has become an investment. It’s not just a collector’s market — it’s an investor’s market. The person that bought the sweater in 2015 bought it as an investment. Now, because we’ve been getting record prices for Kurt Cobain, people are starting to sell it. We anticipate that it will sell for more than double. I call it the new fine art market. People are investing more and more in pop culture, especially rock ’n’ roll. It’s a way to diversify their portfolios.
But it’s not just dearly departed musicians who fetch high prices at auction…
In June, Sotheby’s auctioned off a draft of the lyrics to the Bruce Springsteen classic “Thunder Road” — handwritten by the Boss himself. It also beat pre-auction estimates, selling for $62,500.
The Mother Lode
Also in June, famed Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour made headlines for holding a record-breaking charity guitar auction.
With the help of Christie’s Auction House in New York, Gilmour auctioned off 123 of his famous guitars — including his fabled “Black Strat.” Not only was this the largest guitar collection ever sold for charity, but it’s also the current record holder for the most expensive.
Over 2,000 bidders from 66 countries participated. Collectively, the auction raised over $21 million — which Gilmour donated to ClientEarth, “a charity made up of lawyers and environmental experts that use the law to combat climate change,” according to Guinness World Records.
Instruments — especially those played on iconic albums or in memorable concerts — will usually fetch top-dollar prices, even in not-so-pristine condition.
David Gilmour considered his “Black Strat” a “working guitar” — he used it well and often. Some would say the wear and tear makes it worth more. (And as we’ve seen, sometimes damaged is more valuable.)
Then there are those instruments that are almost too beautiful ever to consider playing. Like the gilt-decorated, blue-lacquered “Moon and Stars” trumpet in B flat created by the Martin Company for Miles Davis.
This brass beauty was expected to fetch anywhere from $70–100K according to pre-auction estimates. But when the hammer came down, the final bid was a whopping $275K.
The Price of Provenance
This is where things get really interesting…
Provenance is essentially a record of ownership. For Miles Davis’ trumpet, above, Christie’s lists the provenance as follows:
So — sometimes an item will come up for auction that has nothing to do with the music industry except to say that it was once owned by a famous musician or performer.
In September, luxury car aficionados were granted the chance to bid on a 1972 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona previously owned by rock ’n’ roll legend and five-time Grammy Award winner Elton John.
The auction house — Silverstone Auctions — estimates it will go for roughly $516–576K, although it has not sold to date.
And who could forget when a Canadian dentist bought a tooth that belonged to John Lennon for more than $31K? Sometime in the mid-’60s, the musician gave the molar to his housekeeper, who kept it for 40 years before deciding to sell it in 2011.
People really will buy anything.
But that’s a good thing — especially for unconventional investors like us.
Lucille St. John
Managing editor, Unconventional Wealth
P.S. Have you got a cherished memento from a favorite concert or admired musician?
Is it a prized possession or an investment you plan to hand down?
Do you have it in an honored spot in your home, displayed for every visitor to see? Or locked away in a vault where neither light nor humidity can damage it?
Let us know about your rock ’n’ roll connections at firstname.lastname@example.org — your story might just appear in a future article.
Lucille St. John
Lucille St. John is the managing editor of Unconventional Wealth. A gentlewoman and a scholar, Lucille never received much in the way of a financial education. But what she lacks in fiscal knowledge she makes up for in taste.
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