A year ago this coming March, headlines across the country trumpeted the $200 million-plus recording deal the estate of Michael Jackson signed with Sony Music Entertainment. Encompassing 10 releases of Jackson music through 2017, the contract counted as its first release the double-CD "This Is It" soundtrack.
Released Oct. 26, 2009, "This Is It" sold 1.6 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. This, coupled with Jackson's superstar status and influential legacy, plus fans' seemingly insatiable appetite for all things Michael, the general consensus was that an album of previously unreleased MJ tracks would sell just as well.
But that doesn't seem to be the case. Released Dec. 14, "Michael" debuted and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Meanwhile, lead single "Hold My Hand," featuring Akon, peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 33 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, selling 304,000, according to SoundScan. And while in its first five weeks "Michael" has sold a respectable -- especially in this industry climate -- 434,000, the figure pales next to that of "This Is It," which sold 890,000 in its first five weeks. "Vision," a three-DVD boxed set featuring 40 MJ videos, has sold well for a boxed set, moving 85,000 units since its Nov. 22 release.
"The overall response to 'Hold My Hand' surprised me," says Chuck Atkins, VP of programming for R&B station WNOV Milwaukee. "I thought top 40 and [R&B] would show it more love. But they left it up to urban AC, and that's just not enough to keep it alive." Adding that the controversy over Jackson's vocals had a negative impact, Atkins believes any future new Jackson songs will "suffer the same way."
Rhythmic AC WKTU New York PD Rob Miller says lack of exposure on many pop stations probably hurt sales efforts more than the debate over Jackson's voice. " 'Hold My Hand' sounds so different than the bulk of music playing on top 40 radio," he says. "But considering the circumstances, I think the album did good. If Michael had been able to tour, reconnect with his audience, the outcome would've been more significant."
Sources say Sony Music Entertainment shipped 3 million "Michael" albums worldwide, of which 900,000 were designated for the United States. The label's promotional efforts also included a global streaming album premiere on Facebook to Jackson's 26 million fans.
Based on the album's first five weeks of U.S. availability, however, Sony looks like it has an inventory liability problem on its hands. In its debut week ending Dec. 19, the album scanned nearly 228,000 units, followed by 150,000 the next week. But in subsequent weeks, its total sales have shrunk to 27,000 units, 18,000 units and then 11,000 units for the week ending Jan. 16. There hasn't been any word from Sony -- whose executives were unavailable for comment -- as to whether a new single is in the wings. But if the album doesn't generate another hit and the record keeps selling roughly 10,000 units per week, then the album has a nine-month supply in the marketplace, which might mean retailers could eventually start sending the label returns.
The liability may not be bad in the rest of the world because Jackson is more popular there than in the United States.
Currently in the pipeline are several more Jackson projects. Ubisoft, publisher of the popular game "Just Dance," follows its Nov. 23 release of "Michael Jackson: The Experience" for the Wii with a Kinect version for Xbox 360 and PlayStation. The two versions will roll out April 12 in North America and April 14 in Europe, the Middle East and Asian territories; a Japan release date is slated for later this year. According to Ubisoft brand manager Andy Simpson, the Kinect version's "innovative camera technology captures the players and puts them in the Michael Jackson universe on their TV screens."
On Oct. 2 is the launch of Michael Jackson: The Immortal Tour in Montreal, a Cirque du Soleil production based on Jackson's music and career. Jackson estate co-executors John McLain and John Branca, the latter of whom was also unavailable for comment, announced the partnership last May. Additional stops also include Los Angeles and New York. Reggie Lyons, who handles publicity for the tour, says additional dates will be released once they're confirmed. A permanent show, staged in Las Vegas, is scheduled to open in 2013.
A reissue of Jackson's seminal 1979 Epic album, "Off the Wall," was reported last year as another project slated for 2011. But a formal release date hasn't been announced.
(Additional reporting by Ed Christman)