When Amy Winehouse’s death was reported in July of 2011, conspiracy theorists immediately declared that her talent and her age, 27, had doomed her to being yet another member of the “27 club”, a club composed of famous musicians who all died before their time, at the age 27.
Regardless of whether Amy Winehouse, who only put out one internationally recognized hit record over the span on her troubled career, deserves to be included alongside the likes of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, her recent death does beg the question as to whether there is a link between these talented musicians’ age and their untimely deaths.
Statisticians Martin Worlkowitz, Arthur Allignol, Adrian G. Bartnett and health economist Nicholas Graves studied this phenomenon in order to find out if there truly was an increased risk of dying for famous 27-year-old musicians.
It is no secret that for many musicians, the “rock n’ roll lifestyle” can be fraught with the perils of alcohol and drug abuse. Many hypotheses have been proposed to explain the deaths of the 27 Club’s members. Some believe that given that a majority of musicians become famous in their early twenties, it is possible that the risks associated with these behaviours peak about 4 to 5 years later.
Another explanation is that the 27 Club has gained recognition as a legitimate musical phenomenon simply through confirmation bias, where, in this case, people only acknowledge results that support this theory while remaining blind to the many musicians who have survived and gone on to have successful careers or have disappeared into oblivion past the age of 27.
In order to investigate the 27 Club, the researchers used an unbiased and transparent sampling scheme to create a retrospective cohort of famous musicians. The researchers then looked for a peak in death rate at the age 27.
They defined “famous musicians” as musicians who had managed to have at least one number one album in the UK charts between 1956 and 2007. This means that the researchers included rock musicians as well as crooners and pop stars in this study.
They also chose to open up their study to the entire roster of musicians listed on each hit album instead of limiting their study to frontmen, because many of the 27 Club musicians did not front their famous bands.
They took all their data from Wikipedia’s lists of number one albums, confirming its accuracy by comparing the data to the Encyclopeadia Britannica.
In order to make sure that the birth dates listed on wikipedia were accurate, the researchers generated a random sample of 48 musicians and compared the birth dates listed on Wikipedia to the ones from their official biographies and websites. Of the 48 musicians, they found only 2 musicians for which the Wikipedia birth date was incorrect (by less than six months). They were, however, unable to confirm the date of birth of 5 of the 48 musicians. This gave Wikipedia an 85% accuracy rate overall, enough to justify its use.
For each of the musicians sampled, they collected their date of birth, the release date of their number one albums, and their date of death. They rejected musicians who were still alive on August 1st of 2011 from the sample, as well as musicians who had become famous after the age of 27.
They plotted the number of deaths for each age and the death rate per 100 musician years to figure out the number and rate of deaths at age 27. They compared these results to the death rates of musicians in other years and to the death rates of the general population in the UK by decade of birth.
Their final sample contained 1046 musicians and 71 deaths, about 7%. The median age at which the musicians had their first number one album was 26.
The researchers found that there was no peak in the risk of death for famous musicians at the age of 27. Out of 522 musicians who were considered “at risk”, there were only 3 deaths. This amounts to a death rate at the age of 27 of 0.57 per 100 musician years. Let’s just say that the risk was much higher after the age of 60 than at the age of 27.
The researchers note that there were more young deaths, meaning deaths that occurred between the ages of 20 and 40, starting in the 1970s up until 1985, creating a “cluster of deaths”. It is possible that improvements in drug overdose treatments contributed to the smaller number of deaths after 1985.
Interestingly, and somewhat unsurprisingly, the death rates for famous musicians during their 20s and 30s was three times higher than in the general UK population.
Their sample was extremely male-biased, with male musicians taking up 86% of the sample. Given that they were evaluating the validity of the 27 Club, which names only 5 women out of the 43 members listed on its Wikipedia page, that is probably not an issue.
One should also note that the sample only captured 3 of the most famous 27 Club members. In addition, three of its most famous members, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, did not have a number one hit album in the UK charts and had to be rejected.
The researchers specify because they were using UK charts, their conclusions only hold true for musicians who were popular in the UK. The statisticians remark that they need to conduct further research, most importantly on charts from the U.S., before the 27 Club can be chalked up to chance.
Findings aside, this paper is probably one of the most humorous I have read in some while, despite the rather somber content. For example, the authors were quick to note that although their sample only captured 3 of the most famous 27 Club musicians, they did manage to include 7 muppets – Yes, Sesame Street muppets.
Wolkewitz, M., Allignol, A., Graves, N., & Barnett, A. (2011). Is 27 really a dangerous age for famous musicians? Retrospective cohort study BMJ, 343 (dec20 1) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.d7799