Members of the "27 Club" in a Tel Aviv mural painting. (Psychology Forever, 2014)
Editor's Note: Camille Lopez-Silvero is a guest How Music Charts contributor by way of the Berklee College of Music program in Valencia, Spain. As of May 2021, Lopez-Silvero is a Master's degree candidate in Global Entertainment and Music Business, as well as the Head of Marketing and Branding at Disrupción Records. She has previously interned at Paradigm Talent Agency.
In an era of hyper-connectivity and sensationalized news cycles, the passing of an artist triggers an immense outpouring of public grief and support in the form of social media buzz, increased record sales, catalog streams, and posthumous releases on behalf of the artist’s estate or record label.
This obsession with tragic, high-profile deaths is nothing new, which is why the mythology of the 27 Club has haunted the music industry for decades. The term was coined in the early 1970s when Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix passed away, within two years of one another, at just 27 years old. Although these tragic deaths happened nearly five decades ago, the legacy of the 27 Club is still evident in the music and entertainment industry today in the form of the Under 27 Club.
Listen to our conversation with Camille below.
Western society's perverse fascination with high-profile deaths likely plays some part in driving this excessive consumption of works by deceased artists, but what’s causing these deaths in the first place? It is well known that the music industry has a mental health problem. A report conducted in 2019 by The Record Union found that 73 percent of 1.5K independent artists suffer from symptoms of mental illness, depression, and/or other negative emotions. The relation between creativity and mental health has long been observed, and several studies point out that a high percentage of artists suffer from some form of mental illness.
Despite these startling figures, the music industry has been slow to adopt mental health initiatives, which is likely due to the possibilities for commercial exploitation of deceased artists’ catalogs and an obsession with the “tortured artist” trope, which the ubiquity of social media has only magnified. Around 2017, we saw the emergence of Emo Rap focusing on themes of death, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and even suicide. In their article “Google Trends and Genius Lyrics: The Bright Side of Dark Places,” Gillian Robins, David Choi and Jason Joven cite Juice WRLD, Lil Peep, and others as catalysts for the unprecedented commercial success of Emo Rap. Unfortunately, that commerciality ends up glamorizing mental health issues and substance abuse and preventing artists from getting the help they need.
Juice WRLD (1998-2019)
In his song “Legends,” Juice Wrld raps “What’s the 27 club? We ain’t making it past 21.” A little more than a year later, on Dec. 8, 2019, Juice WRLD died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 21. This eerie foreshadowing of his own death is reflective of listeners and fans’ willingness to overlook and embrace the self-destructive nature of their favorite artists.
Juice WRLD was beloved by his fans for his heart-wrenching lyrics about depression, heartbreak, and substance abuse. He had a big influence on the rising sub-genre of Emo Rap, combining Rock, Pop, and Trap, which came to define the growing sound. Juice WRLD started off uploading tracks on Soundcloud including his hit song “Lucid Dreams,” which he uploaded in June 2017. Within about nine months, “Lucid Dreams'' racked up more than 2.5 million Soundcloud plays and Juice WRLD signed a reported $3 million record deal with Interscope. In 2018, he was the most streamed, liked, and reposted artist on Soundcloud, and his star was on the rise. Following his highly sensationalized death, his streaming numbers sharply increased and his hit song “Lucid Dreams” shot to the No. 1 spot on Apple Music’s Top 100 and Spotify’s United States Top 50 charts. In Figure 1, below, we see the evolution of Juice WRLD’s Genius page views and Spotify performance over time, revealing the drastic increase in his streaming performance following his death:
In Figure 1, we see the Genius page views for Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams.” The yellow icon indicates the date of his death, which corresponds with a drastic spike in his Genius page views. It is unsurprising that fans were quick to stream and analyze this song in the wake of Juice WRLD’s passing. While Lucid Dreams is a song about the anguish one experiences after a breakup, it also echoes the grief that Juice WRLD’s fans felt over his loss. Throughout the song, he repeats “I still see your shadows in my room” — a reminder that even though he is gone, his presence lives on through his music.
In Figure 2, we clearly see a spike in Spotify followers and monthly listeners immediately following his death. We also see an upward trend in the years following his death, suggesting that his death contributed to his overall popularity as an artist. On the day of his death, Juice WRLD’s total streams climbed nearly 500 percent, and in 2020, Juice WRLD was Spotify’s most streamed artist in the US. Although Juice WRLD’s career was already on the rise, from a data perspective, his sudden death accelerated that trajectory even more.
Lil Peep (1996-2017)
Lil Peep was another leading figure in the Emo Rap scene until he died of substance abuse at just 21 years old. Lil Peep openly struggled with depression and substance abuse and often addressed these issues in his music. Despite his limited discography, Lil Peep left a lasting cultural impact by pioneering the Emo Rap genre alongside Juice WRLD and others. He began releasing music on Soundcloud in 2015 with LiL PEEP PART ONE. On Aug. 15, 2017, he released his first studio album, Come Over When You’re Sober (Part One), which was made with the help of Grammy-winning producer Rob Cavallo. While this record signaled his shift into the mainstream, it wasn’t until his death on Nov. 15, 2017, that his fame exploded. In Figure 3, below, we see the evolution of Lil Peep’s Wikipedia page views exemplify this shift.
The massive spike in Wikipedia page views exemplified above are in large part due to the high-profile stars and publications who publicly mourned his death. Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy and actress/singer Bella Thorne were among many others who posted on social media about their grief.
Alongside the expected increase in attention and public outpouring of grief, Lil Peep’s death was also embroiled in controversy. Lil Peep’s mother, Liza Womack, sued his manager and tour manager for negligence, breach of contract, and wrongful death. According to the lawsuit, Peep’s management team knew that he was burnt out, exhausted, and physically unwell, and instead of finding him help, they subdued him with illegal drugs. Despite the sobering allegations of the lawsuit, Lil Peep’s posthumous streams continue to explode.
Upon its release, Peep’s debut album, Come Over When You’re Sober (Part One), charted in only one country: the Czech Republic; however, following his death, the album entered the Billboard 200 at No. 168, selling 16K album equivalents the following week. Figure 3, above, looks at the change in his Spotify and Soundcloud followers after his death.
Figure 3 illustrates the growth in Lil Peep’s Spotify followers after his death. The yellow icon represents the day of his death, which visibly correlates with a large spike in followers. Lil Peep’s followers continue to climb over a three year period following his death, which is partially due to the continued media attention surrounding the lawsuit, as well as posthumous releases. His first posthumous release, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, was announced in October 2018 and released on Nov. 9, 2018. His second posthumous project, Everybody’s Everything, was released on the second anniversary of his death. This album accompanied a documentary of the same name about his life. In June and September 2020, the label AUTNMY re-released two of Lil Peep’s projects, Crybaby and Hellboy, respectively.
Similar to Lil Peep’s Spotify performance over time, his Soundcloud followers spiked around the date of his death. Following his death, general interest dropped off significantly. It is likely that his SoundCloud followership did not grow over time (as his Spotify followership did) because SoundCloud is primarily a music discovery platform, whereas Spotify is a great platform for listening to an artist’s entire catalogue. Consequently, Lil Peep’s Soundcloud followers only increased surrounding his posthumous releases in November 2018 and June and September of 2020.
Mac Miller (1992-2018)
The concept of posthumous albums is controversial. At best, it’s a way to honor a deceased artist’s legacy by releasing unfinished work that was intended for the public. At worst, it’s an exploitative cash grab on behalf of labels and other rights holders. Either way, posthumous releases have proven to be enormously successful in terms of consumption.
Take Mac Miller, for example, who died of a drug overdose on Sep. 7, 2018, at the age of 26. Prior to his death, Mac had a cult following with five of his albums landing in the Top 5 of the Billboard 200. He released his first mixtape, KIDS, in August of 2010, which earned him substantial attention and a record contract with Rostrum Records. In 2011, Miller released his debut album, Blue Slide Park, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Following this success, Mac began collaborating with artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J, Lil Wayne, and many others. In 2014, he signed with Warner Bros. Records and released four studio albums: GO:OD AM (2015), The Divine Feminine (2016), Swimming (2018), and the posthumous Circles (2020). Mac’s sound evolved significantly over the course of his career — from the upbeat so-called "Frat Rap" that defined K.I.D.S and Best Day Ever to the jazzy and introspective Swimming.
Although Mac achieved considerable success throughout his career, it wasn’t until his death and posthumous release of Circles that he became ubiquitous. In contrast to other posthumous albums, which can feel like a sloppy compilation of demos and half-finished songs, Circles is a reflective and poignant piece of work that feels like his final goodbye. Circles debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, earning 164K album-equivalent units during its first week. In Figure 4, below, we see how Mac’s Spotify performance increased drastically immediately following his death and then following the release of Circles.
In Figure 4, we see two significant spikes in both Spotify followers and also monthly listeners. First, on the date of Mac’s death on Sept. 7, 2018, and following the release of Circles on Jan. 17, 2020. For many fans, Circles provided some form of closure following Mac’s unexpected death at what seemed to be the apex of his career.
Throughout his discography, Mac raps candidly about his struggles with depression and drug addiction. Miller’s previous album, Swimming, fixates on mental health and self care, particularly the lead single “Self Care.”
The music video eerily portrays Mac trapped in a wooden coffin while he raps lyrics like, “Wear the height be too tall so like September I fall / Down below, now I know that the medicine be on call, yeah.” In the wake of his passing, Mac’s fans pored over his catalogue, piecing together the breadcrumbs he left behind in his songs about his struggle with substance abuse. His honesty contributed immensely to the success of the posthumous Circles, which gave fans a glimpse into his mental space during the last months of his life. This intrigue is reflected not only in his Spotify streaming numbers (as shown above), but also in his YouTube views reflected in Figure 5 below.
In Figure 5, we see a large spike in Mac’s YouTube views during the month of his death and again after the release of Circles as fans revisited his most popular videos. Similar to Juice WRLD and Lil Peep, Mac was open about his struggles with mental health and substance abuse, and yet he still couldn’t access the help he needed.
The Future of Music and Mental Health
Honest songwriting often connects more universally and powerfully, even when touching on taboo topics like substance abuse and depression; however, that can come with a cost: namely, the glamorization of self-destructive behavior.
While society is making strides in destigmatizing mental health issues, the music industry hasn't really kept pace. In the aforementioned 73 Percent Report, researchers found that only 19 percent of 1.5K surveyed music makers believe that the music industry is working to create a sustainable climate with healthy artists. While this statistic is slightly disheartening, it also reveals the enormous potential for growth in the mental health space within the music and entertainment industry.
In an industry that is already rife with mental illness and burnout, it is vital that we provide our artists with the resources and support they need to be emotionally healthy. Setting aside the moral argument in favor of the economic one, with consistent touring and deeper discographies, healthy musicians arguably have longer, more profitable careers on the whole.
Some music companies are already cultivating thoughtful environments that prioritize mental health: Toronto’s Royal Mountain Records, which subsidizes its artists’ therapy; Love Renaissance (LVRN), which launched a mental health division; and Shading the Limelight, which provides wellness coaching solutions for the entertainment industry. The music industry has every reason to prioritize the mental health of artists, and it will be interesting to see what other companies begin to embrace these initiatives as well.