Do you feel there is something special? I have been doing studies about the music industry for well over a decade now, but it is always somehow different when you post something about Michael Jackson‘s Thriller. It is like watching a 100 metres race with Usain Bolt, or going to a theater to see a new Star Wars movie, this just feels different. That’s just how big Thriller is.
Its 1979 predecessor, the artist’s adult career debut Off The Wall was a big hit in English-speaking countries. In France, it sold a mere 30,000 units prior to the release of Thriller. As a consequence the anticipation for this new album was close to zero. A lead single with Paul McCartney certainly helped though with The Girl Is Mine peaking at #6 in unofficial charts of the time. The album, released in the fall of 1982, awaited early 1983 to debut on charts on the back of the single.
It really is 1983 that changed the world map of the music industry. From February, the second single Billie Jean started to break the doors of the mainstream audience. The track went to #1 and sold over 1 million copies. The album climbed inside the Top 10 even though charts weren’t fully representing how big it had become. The third single Beat It was issued before the summer, it was one more #1 hit, one more million seller. By July, the album was #1 as well.
With the hype reaching unseen heights the record appeared to be unstoppable. The fourth single Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ filled the gap until the Christmas rush by hitting the Top 10. Indeed, it filled the gap since a real earthquake was coming.
At the end of the year, the title track Thriller was released as a single with its gigantic music video. It was one more #1 single, one more million seller. Reading this article it may look like it was an easy feat to sell a million copies of a single in France during that period. From 1982 to 1985 only five non-soundtrack international songs achieved this feat – Billie Jean, Beat It and Thriller by Michael Jackson, When The Rain Begins To Fall by Jermaine Jackson and Pia Zadora and We Are The World by USA For Africa composed by Michael Jackson & Lionel Richie. This is the illustration of how utterly massive Jackson was as even his brother was suddenly a major seller! He was related to all the biggest hits for four consecutive calendar years. Outside of those hits, the closest song to join this elite group was Say, Say, Say, again a Michael Jackson hit, paired with Paul McCartney.
Clearly, sales weren’t restricted to singles. If from 1982 to 1988 no album in France sold over 800,000 copies within a calendar year, such mechanical rules linked to the market size had no strength against the Michael Jackson phenomenon. By February 1984, the record was up to an extraordinary 1,8 million copies sold in France. The wave was so big that Thriller retained a Top 10 spot for seven months into 1984. Sales were at 2,1 million by the end of 1984.
Not all big hit albums move into big catalog sellers, very few among Pop albums actually. Just like Thriller was the exception rather than the norm when first released, the scenario just got repeated as far as catalog sales are concerned. In 1988, boosted by the Bad Tour, the set re-entered at an impressive #16 position with three months inside the Top 30. In 1992, during the Dangerous era, the impact was quite interestingly very similar with again a #16 peak and two and a half months charted. The album was still floating around as it randomly appeared at #48 in June 1993. By the end of 1995, the French industry was questioning whether or not D’Eux by Celine Dion had passed the more than 2,5 million sales of Thriller. A few years later, when the remaster 2001 edition was going to be released, the tally had increased to over 2,7 million. With this new edition that peaked at #33 and ongoing 2002 sales the sales total quickly increased to 2,8 million.
The newly introduced catalog chart showed the never ending appeal of the album that was still frequently charting, including inside the Top 10. The album sold more than 120,000 copies from 2003 to 2007. The 25th anniversary edition was then released in 2008 and quickly turned into the biggest reissue ever of a studio album. The set went to #1 with first week sales exceeding the 60,000 mark, a figure usually achieved by the biggest new albums of the year. It remained at #1 for three weeks and sold 210,000 units for the year.
The year 2009 was marked by the ultimate passing of Michael Jackson. In most countries, compilations like Number Ones, The Essential or King Of Pop dominated charts. France has always been one of the very best markets for Jackson and naturally purchased massively his studio albums. The box set The Collection containing all his first five albums including Thriller rocketed to #1 before being excluded from charts due to the back catalog ranking, one more data glitch by IFOP charts. The Collection was #1 for a week only because Thriller itself was excluded. Indeed, this wasn’t a best of but instead the original 1982 album that catapulted to #1 with unreal sales. The album retained the top spot for eight more weeks. It was the overall 4th best selling album of the year with over 365,000 copies sold, putting the total on 3,5 million units. As high as #11 on the comprehensive chart in early 2010, the album added again more than 75,000 units that year.
Since 2011, chart rules allow catalog albums to chart again. This cult album appeared on the charts in nothing less than five different forms – Thriller, Thriller Special Edition, Thriller 25, Thriller + Off The Wall box and The Collection. In total, the album registered an outstanding 132 weeks on the chart. It is unclear if sales of Thriller 25 and Thriller have always been accounted for together, the album sold in any edition over 140,000 copies in the last five years. Various 2CD box added 30,000 units to the tally. Those sales do not include the 120,000 copies sold by The Collection box set.
Net shipment as of the end of 2015 is estimated at 3,745,000 copies.
As usual, feel free to comment and / or ask a question!
Sources: SNEP, Nielsen, Platine, IFOP, GFK, Billboard, L’Actualité, Le Parisien.