How Jackson's "Thriller" changed the music business

Fri Jul 3, 2009 8:05pm EDT
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By Gail Mitchell and Melinda Newman

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - In early 1984, when Epic Records executives presented their slate of upcoming releases at the convention in Hawaii of parent company CBS Records, they couldn't resist playing up the success they were experiencing. So between the pitches for new albums, Epic inserted stock footage of semi trucks and a voice-over that thunderously announced, "There goes another load of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' albums!"

Trucks weren't really leaving the warehouse every few minutes, but "Thriller" was still shattering expectations more than a year after its November 30, 1982, release. Epic was selling more than 1 million copies per month in the United States alone.

Nearly 27 years after its release, "Thriller" still stands as the best-selling studio album in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, which has certified it 28-times platinum. More than 50 million copies have been sold internationally, according to estimates.

But the album's success can't be measured by sales alone. As Jackson moonwalked his way into music history, "Thriller" set a new benchmark for blockbusters that changed how the music business promoted and marketed superstar releases. It also changed MTV, breaking down the cable network's racial barriers and raising the bar for video quality.


From the beginning, Epic intended to live up to its name. The label made "Thriller" the first major release to debut worldwide simultaneously, the first album to be promoted for close to two years instead of the usual six or eight months and the first album to spin off seven singles to radio -- more than double the normal number.

Along the way, "Thriller" redefined the expectations for blockbuster releases. Starting in 1984, Columbia released seven singles from Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," all of which landed in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. Around the same time, Warner Bros. sent to radio five singles from Prince's "Purple Rain." Mercury found seven singles on Def Leppard's "Hysteria," all of which went to the pop chart. All three albums eventually sold more than 10 million copies each in the United States alone.

Before all that, "Thriller" gave a much-needed boost to the music business, then suffering from its second slump in three years. At the time, Billboard reported that record shipments had declined by 50 million units between 1980 and 1982.   Continued...

<p>Superstar Michael Jackson performs as fans wave their hands during the World Music Awards ceremony at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club, May 8, 1996. REUTERS/file</p>