Understanding: The true sales of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

Michael_Jackson_Thriller_dancing

In 1983, long before the Night King, Michael Jackson was the one terrorizing the World… and he did it in incredible fashion. In its March 17, 1984, edition, Billboard printed an article telling us that Michael Jackson‘s cult album Thriller had become the greatest selling album of all time ahead of the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever. This fact remains as true today as it was then. Who’s gonna bet on its sales figures though? Some say 40 million, others speak about 150 million. Today, we will tell you where the truth lies!

There are two ways of defining global sales of an album. The first one consists in relying on official communications from labels or official bodies. The second one relies on breakdowns of sales figures from each relevant market based on chart performance and certifications. Both methods are full of traps and absolutely impossible to master without years of experience.

The case of Thriller is no stranger to these kind of traps. There is a reason why people can assure you it sold a certain amount of copies while telling you numbers that can range from 40 million to four times this figure. In recent times, Sony has gone wild with their claims related to this record. It all started at the World Music Awards in 2006 when they gave Jackson a plaque certifying sales of 104 million units for Thriller. They have increased this tally several times since then with some of their official websites now stating 150 million sales.

Official bodies refer to the IFPI and the related recording industry associations. Readers are often misled by media sourcess with a history related to music like Billboard, Time Magazine and The Guardian. As credible as those sources may be, the figures they claim are not official by any means. They only really matter when they explicitly state the figure comes from the label as they are only disclosing second-hand information.

No official body has ever stated a figure for Thriller, and reports from the label came out very early during its run and involved highly misguided wording.

As for sales breakdowns, charts aren’t relevant for albums that sold well for decades, plus many markets had no official album chart in 1982. At best, if they had, it wasn’t necessarily very accurate. Then certifications aren’t automatic, not always available, plus they provide information limited to a threshold with no additional precision.

If you put all those elements together, you understand how it is possible to get a ballpark as wide as 40 to 150 million. Do those difficulties mean sales of Thriller will forever remain a mystery? Of course not. I have been digging into them for so many years that areas of doubt are now very limited. Considering the entire set of data available granting a margin of error just under 2 million units, a few percent’s only for Thriller, is absolutely possible.

We will start with sales of Thriller during the 80s using both methods previously mentioned. Then we will add sales since 1990 to date which are much better recorded.

17 thoughts on “Understanding: The true sales of Michael Jackson’s Thriller”

    1. No chance. That 49m claim, that was put out a few years ago, is completely made up, there is no way it has sold/shipped 49m even now, let alone back when the claim was made. I’d imagine it is around about the same figure as Led Zeppelin IV in sales/shipments.

  1. So what is the highest selling album in the US between Thriller and The Very Best Of The Eagles?

    Both albums must be quite close.

    Can’t wait for the MJ CSPC article 🙂

    1. Hi IE!

      I supposed you refer to Greatest Hits 71/75 🙂

      The album climbed from 4,95m to 6,2m units scanned in the US since it was certified 29xP in 01/2006. The award was date-specific as during the second semester of 2005 Hell Freezes Over, Hotel California (the song) and one of their DVDs were certified so their catalog was audited. As it was certified in 2006 when sales of physical albums were 7 times higher than now, we can expect over 50,000 copies on shelves by then, especially as it was certified just after Christmas. That’s 29 + 6,2 – 4,95 – 0,05 = 30,2 million. Definitely, it isn’t far from Thriller as you can see, but a good 200k behind as of now!

  2. with only one album, and with just its pure album sales (i.e. no singles, streaming, greatest hits, dvds factored in), michael jackson would be 33rd on the list of studied artists so far. something tells me that with the full cspc of this album alone, he would be somewhere around the 24th position. ridiculous just wow

    1. On top of that, Thriller’s pure sales at 65.6M mean it’s currently second on the CSPC chart in just sales. It’s going to be so, so, so far ahead of every other album when CSPC is calculated for it. It’s almost unrealistic how successful Thriller remains.

  3. You should do Barbra Streisand next after Michael. Michael’s favorite song is “People” and now the Only “lost” one of Female Big Four in the site

  4. Great work again. This is random, but I was wondering if you were able to do Paula Abdul. She does not have many releases, and I was wondering if her debut crossed the 10 million mark in US. Thanks MJ!

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