In the year since the sudden passing of Whitney Houston, just 24 hours before the 2012 Grammy Awards, the powerhouse diva has sold more than 2 million albums and 4.3 million tracks, according Nielsen SoundScan. Billboard estimates the revenue going to the Houston estate from recording, publishing and radio airplay to be $3.8 million.
That's respectable compared with the estimated $4.2 million earned by Kelly Clarkson last year, or the $4.6 million earned by Rihanna, both of whom had the benefit of touring revenue. But industry figures interviewed by Billboard wondered if it could have been more. Houston's death drove last year's Grammys to the second-highest-rated telecast ever, and prompted an outpouring of public grief. Could the estate and catalog sales have done better?
The strategy of the Houston estate has been to carefully guard the artist's legacy. Aside from a November CBS TV special, "We Will Always Love You: A Grammy Salute to Whitney Houston," that featured performances from Celine Dion and Jennifer Hudson, the estate chose to take its time with her properties. Houston estate attorney Kenny Meiselas of Grubman Indursky Shire & Meiselas says the intention wasn't to make a quick buck through renewed interest in the star. "The focus, especially during the difficult and emotional first year for the family, was to make sure anything done was to be consistent with the Whitney Houston legacy," says Meiselas, who also advises Usher and Nicki Minaj.
Still, one veteran estate lawyer says an opportunity had been missed to put Houston's image in the best possible light. "It's been too much about the sad story. I would position her as one of the three great voices: Aretha, Barbra and then Whitney."
In 2012, Houston output included an 18-track greatest-hits collection, "I Will Always Love You: The Best of Whitney Houston," featuring two previously unheard songs. The set, released in November, has sold 132,000 copies, according to SoundScan. By waiting 10 months after the star's death, retailers felt that her label, RCA, was slow to heed the call to unveil an up-to-date U.S. hits album. "It got lost in the fourth-quarter rush, " one retailer says.
Income has been mostly from royalties stemming from her catalog, which had a surge in sales throughout the year. After Houston's death, nine of her then-10 albums returned to the chart, with 2000's "Whitney: The Greatest Hits" peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with 886,000 copies sold and becoming the No. 14-selling album of 2012. Then in August came the release of "Sparkle," the film completed prior to her death. It disappointed, grossing $24 million last year, according to Box Office Mojo, while its soundtrack has sold 85,000 copies.
Sony's Legacy Recordings, which declined to comment on this story, owns Houston's catalog and pays royalties to her estate, which doesn't have publishing rights.
Meiselas wouldn't go into specifics about the Houston estate's future plans, but says that he would have more to discuss in 2013. Two weeks before the one-year anniversary of Houston's death, her mother Cissy Houston released the book "Remembering Whitney" (HarperCollins). On Feb. 9-the night before this year's Grammy telecast-CBS will air a behind-the-scenes look at how the singer's passing affected the 2012 Grammys. Though that won't exactly take the focus off the sad-story narrative, it will give the public a chance to remember Houston's loss and could spark a resurgence of interest.