Understanding: The true sales of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

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I) global reports – Sales Timeline to 1991

The success of Thriller has been widely reported since its release. The first focus was on its US performance before spreading around the World. Below is a list of figures reported via relevant Media sources – Billboard and the New York Times etc. – and referring to Epic / CBS as the source.

2 million in the US by Feb 26, 1983.
5 million in the US by May 23, 1983.
10 million by Jun 21, 1983. (7,2 million in the US)
12 million by Sep 17, 1983 (8,5 million in the US). 200,000 sales per week.
13 million by Nov 11, 1983.
14 million by Dec 4, 1983. Over 600,000 sales per week in the US.
20 million (‘approaching’) by Dec 18, 1983.
21 million by Dec 20, 1983.
23 million by Jan 27, 1984.
25 million by Feb 7, 1984.
27 million by Feb 26, 1984.
30,9 million by Mar 17, 1984 (19,4 million in the US).
33 million by May 2, 1984.
35 million by Jul 7, 1984.
— 20 million in the US by Sep 19, 1984.
37 million by Dec 15, 1984.
38,5 million by Aug. 1, 1985
39 million by Aug 15, 1985.
40 million by Jun 5, 1986.

By the release of Jackson‘s follow up album Bad in August 1987, the figure relayed by most Media outlets was 38,5 million, “as of Aug. 1, 1985”. This was logical as it the figure appearing inside the Guinness Book of World Records for several years from its 1987 edition always mentioning “as of Aug. 1, 1985”.

The end of the 80s was a celebration time for Michael Jackson and Epic. After a decade of smashes, the label prepared him a plaque titled Artist of the Decade which listed his achievements. Thriller‘s sales of 40,7 million units during the 80s are seen on this very plaque below:

Then came Dangerous in November 1991. The figure communicated by the label to newspapers suddenly rose to 48 million. This can be seen in the following articles by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. This latter article is interesting as it tells us about Black or White‘s record of appearing on the most Top 40 radio stations in history, about K-Mart orders, about the recent introduction of Soundscan and the highest figure recorded from the Guns N’ Roses. Further information is supplied concerning the advanced orders for Dangerous and about the risk of heavy shipments possibly ending with returns as seen with MC Hammer. All these elements prove the writer has knowledge on the subject, but also that he was in touch with Sony in order to know the details of the shipments.

All figures from 1983 to 1986 are perfectly consistent with each other and we feel like we have found the truth. The end of the 80s plaque brings some doubts. How was it at 40,7 million only by the end of 1989 with 40 million sold by 1986 and the boost enjoyed during the Bad era? In 1988, Thriller charted at #15 in the UK, #6 in Germany, #18 in France, #4 in Austria and also in other nations, selling easily 2 million units worldwide during that year alone. If it sold 40,7 million during the 80s, why did Sony claim it was up to 48 million by 1991?

We felt close to the truth a few moments ago, but now we are flooded with confusion.  As is often a recurring theme in these cases, 100% of the figures listed on this page are perfectly true. Nothing is fake. Neither 40,7 million by 1989 nor 48 million by 1991 is untrue. How come?

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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