Understanding: The true sales of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

  • 85

Spring Point Sunrise

III) Sales breakdown – up to 11/1991

We already detailed US sales through the years so we can directly tell Thriller was on 23,8 million sales by the release of Dangerous. In Canada it was certified 2xDiamond for 2 million sales in April 1984, with Billboard confirming 2,4 million sales by 1986. Considering the pace of sales in the following years on their neighbors, the album was up to 2,65 million by 1991.

In Brazil the album sold nearly 1 million by 1985 , while in Mexico it went on to be certified for 1,6 million sales in 2009, some 2,3 million copies combined by 1991.  The album was up to 577,000 units by 1999 in Argentina and it had exceeded 300,000 copies by 1995 in Colombia. Factoring in market sizes, that’s about 1,2 million sales in South America, outside of Brazil by 1991.

It appears that sales over the region are truly under control with detailed figures for every relevant market, leaving very little space for errors.

Total – 23,8 + 2,65 + 2,3 + 1,2 = 29,95 million


In the UK, Thriller was about to hit 11xPlatinum a few months later which means some 3,2 million units shipped by 1991. In France the album had sold 2,3 million copies as we already detailed.

The case of Germany is slightly more complex. It was certified 3xPlatinum for 1,5 million sales in 1995, but it had got there at least as early as in 1992. This doesn’t include sales in East Germany where it was released by AMIGA instead of Epic. If we compare that area to Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia for which we have figures, and that they all had similar demographics, we can assume from 100,000 to 200,000 sales in East Germany, a total of near 1,7 million for the entire country by 1991. That’s 7,25 million sales from the big 3 European nations.

From 600,000 to 1,000,000 units were sold in each Italy, the Netherlands and Spain for a total of 2,45 million. Inside the 300,000 to 500,000 range we have Belgium and Sweden giving a total of 750,000 units combined. Then with confirmed sales from 100,000 to 300,000 there are Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Greece for a total of 950,000 units. While there is no exact data for the following countries, Jackson‘s history in these nations plus the market size, tell us that from 100,000 to 300,000 units is most likely the correct ballpark too for Ireland, Poland, Turkey, Russia, Romania and Hungary for once again a total of near 1 million. It sold between 50,000 to 100,000 copies in Finland, Norway and Portugal with a total of 400,000 units adding together all the missing markets.

Total – 7,25 + 2,45 +0,75 + 0,95 + 0,95 + 0,4 = 12,75 million


Selling 800,000 copies after a few years only in Australia, Thriller was later properly certified by the ARIA – although a bit delayed – 11xPlatinum for 770,000 sales.

The 12xPlatinum certification for 180,000 sales achieved in 2009 in New-Zealand, out of which two thirds came during the 80s, suggests about 930,000 sales by 1991 for the region.


No need to say that the main market of Asia is Japan. Thriller is often assigned 1,6 million sales there, as it this was its Oricon tally. We went through the touchy figures from Japan already, pointing out how Oricon figures excluded imports and divided each format into distinct rankings, with no sales being counted whatsoever when a record drops out of the charts.

In recent years the comprehensive total of 2,5 miillion units has been floating around, while Sony Music Japan stated 2,3 million by 2003. RIAJ also certified the album Gold for 100,000 sales from July 1991 to March 1994. Putting every fact together, we can’t be far wrong with an assumption of 2,05 million units sold by 11/1991.

What’s known about the rest of Asia? Sadly, very little. Billboard confirmed 80,000 sales in Hong-Kong by 1987, in Singapore it moved 40,000 units, while in India the original album sold over 100,000 copies. We know how massive Jackson became there as Dangerous sold 4 million units in Asia without even including sales in Japan. The three aforementioned markets, Hong-Kong, Singapore and India are the three weakest nations, along with Malaysia among the 10 relevant Asian markets. In those countries, Dangerous up to date outsold Thriller‘s sales from the 80s by almost 3 to 1, although the ratio is favorable to Dangerous as Jackson toured Singapore during the Dangerous Tour, exploding his sales there thanks to this factor. It sets a minimum of 1,35 million for Thriller during the 80s, most likely anywhere from 1,5 million to 2 million.

Total – 2,05 + 1,5+ = 3,55+ million

Rest of the World

For most albums, rest of the world equals to South Africa as albums are rarely issued in countries of the Middle East or Africa. Thriller and Jackson as a whole is something of a special case though. Thriller sold over 80,000 units in Israel. By 2009 the popstar had sold 2 million albums in South Africa, in this country Thriller was individually over Platinum status by September 1983 when the album had sold only 3,5 million units abroad, which suggests a good 300,000 copies ultimately sold. The album was also released in various places that usually saw no international records like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Jamaica. We will naturally assume small sales in those territories – this gives us a total of 750,000 units for all markets from this section.


Global sales add for 29,95 + 12,75 + 0,93 + 3,55 + 0,75 = 47,93 million, which sees us end spot on on the 48 million units reported by Sony up to that point. Out of those 48 million copies, more than 45 million come from markets from which we have information to back up the figures, with under 3 million worked out only in market figures plus proportions based on sales of Jackson‘s remaining albums.

All in all, the conclusion leaves little room for doubt – Thriller sold 48 million units up to November 1991.

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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *