"Thriller" conquered racial divides and evolving platforms at MTV, radio
When executives of CBS Records went about the business of preparing for the November 30 release of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in the fall of 1982, they knew they had on their hands a terrific album by one of the biggest superstars in the music industry. But they were also a bit concerned, since the timing of Jackson's follow-up to his mega-selling 1979 album "Off The Wall" could not have seemed worse.
For starters, the record industry as a whole was in a bad slump, with shipments industry-wide down by 50 million units between 1980 and 1982. CBS Records' own profits were down 50% and sales were down over 15% for the year. As a result, major company-wide layoffs occurred in mid-August, on a day the company would remember as "Black Friday." CBS desperately needed Jackson's album to be a hit, but market conditions appeared daunting.
THIS IS THRILLER
(1) With sales of 29 million, according to the RIAA, "Thriller" is the best-selling studio album in U.S. history. The set is tied with the Eagles' best-of collection, "Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975."
(2) "Thriller" has spent the most weeks (37) atop the Billboard 200 of any album by a single artist. Only the "West Side Story" soundtrack (54) has reigned longer.
(4) "Thriller" became the first album to generate seven Hot 100 top 10 hits.
- Billboard Chart Staff
• REVIEW: 'Thriller' At 30, Track By Track
• GALLERY: Michael Jackson's Life In Photos
• CHART BEAT: MJ's Biggest Chart Thrills
ABOUT THE AUTHOR OF THIS ARTICLE: Steve Greenberg ( @steviegpro) is the founder of S-Curve Records and a Grammy winning record producer who had an integral role in developing the careers of Hanson, Joss Stone and the Jonas Brothers, among many others. Find more of his writing here.
Stories circulated in the press about how the slump in the business stemmed from kids feeding their money into the coin slots of video game arcades instead of spending it on music. But that trendy theory was, to say the least, inadequate in explaining the industry's malaise. What really had happened over the previous three years was a seismic technological shift that had torn apart the very idea of the mass audience upon which pop hits depended: By the end of the 70s, 50.1% of radio listeners were tuned to FM, ending AM's historical prevalence and hastening the demise of the mass-audience Top 40 stations that had dominated the radio ratings since the 1950s. By 1982, FM commanded 70% of the audience-and among the 12-24 year old demographic, it was 84%. Consequently, a mass pop music audience that crossed demographic lines could not be sustained. Instead of listening to stations which offered "the best of everything" as they had on the old AM Top 40's, the abundance of choice on FM afforded listeners the luxury of hearing only the musical sub-genre they liked on more narrowly formatted stations, without having to wade through everything else. The result of this shift was that each audience segment had only limited exposure to the music played on the formats targeted to other audience groups.
Billboard columnist Mike Harrison noted in 1981 that "No longer is there an exclusive Top 40 anything, but rather an ever-changing multitude of Top 40's, depending upon the genre one wants to research or focus on. He added "Those who enjoy a-little-bit-of-this-and-a-little-bit-of-that….constitute a minority." In fact, by 1982 many markets, including major ones like New York City, didn't even have a mass appeal Top 40 station anymore. Precision targeting of audiences meant that radio stations needed to avoid playing anything that fell outside their target listeners' most narrowly-defined tastes. Failure to do this would lead to listener "tune-out," the fatal turning of the dial.
This situation led Newsweek, in an April, 1982 article titled "Is Rock on The Rocks?" to assert that increased fragmentation had drained most of the excitement from the pop scene, as there was no longer much cross-fertilization between musical styles. Newsweek concluded their article on what they called "rock's doldrums" by reminiscing about the "good old days" when Elvis Presley and the Beatles created excitement by providing an identifiable center to the pop music world, recording music that the various segments of the pop music audience could all share. According to Newsweek, Elvis and the Beatles were "Phenomena produced by a nation responding in unison to the sounds on every Top 40 radio station." The magazine went on to predict that "In today's fragmented music marketplace, no rock star can hope to have that kind of impact."
If that prognosis wasn't enough to give CBS Records executives sleepless nights, one aspect of radio's fragmentation was particularly scary: Since the start of the decade, black music had been increasingly banished from most white-targeted radio stations. This was partially due the virulent, reactionary anti-disco backlash that resulted in the implosion of that genre at the end of 1979. As the 80's dawned, programmers increasingly stayed clear of rhythm-driven black music out of fear of being branded "disco," even when the black music in question bore little resemblance to disco. This backlash was greatly magnified by the demise of AM mass appeal Top 40 radio at the hands of FM, which led to black artists being ghettoized on urban contemporary radio, while disappearing from pop radio, which focused on a more narrow white audience.
How dramatic was the decline of black music on the pop charts in that period? In 1979, nearly half of the songs on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 pop chart could also be found on the urban contemporary chart. By 1982, the amount of black music on the Hot 100 was down by almost 80%. The fall of that year represented the nadir of black music's presence on the pop chart: Not one record by a black artist could be found in the Top 20 on the Top 200 album chart or the Hot 100 singles chart for three consecutive weeks that October-a phenomenon unseen since before the creation of Top 40 radio in the mid 1950s.
In this environment, numerous No. 1 urban contemporary hits, like Roger Troutman's "Heard It Through the Grapevine" or "Burn Rubber" by the Gap Band, failed to make the pop Top 40, and one, Zapp's "Dance Floor," failed to even crack the Hot 100. Prince's "1999," which would later emerge as a pop culture anthem, flopped at Top 40 radio even as it soared up the urban chart. A black superstar like Rick James could sell over 4 million albums while remaining unknown at the time to most listeners of white-oriented radio. His "Super Freak," which like "1999" would eventually come to be considered iconic, peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100 in 1981, and was not played at all on many pop stations, whose programmers shied away because it had "that disco feel."
In all of 1982, only two No. 1 records on the Billboard Hot 100 were by black artists: Lionel Richie's "Truly" and "Ebony and Ivory" by Stevie Wonder in tandem with Paul McCartney (In fact, they were the only two records by black artists to even make the Top 3). And those two records veered so far into easy-listening territory that neither of them even made it to No. 1 on the black chart (Billboard rechristened the R&B chart as the Top Black Singles chart in June of 1982). In fact, the only record to hit No. 1 on both the pop and black charts during all of 1982 was by a white act: "I Can't Go For That" by Hall & Oates.
A seemingly impenetrable wall had been erected between the black listening audience and its white counterpart; for the most part, neither black kids nor white kids had any idea what the other was listening to. And just as it seemed things couldn't get more difficult for a black artist hoping for across the board appeal, something new and scary appeared on the scene: MTV. MTV's playlist was just as fragmented as that of white radio, and it was taking the music world by storm.