For record executives, the story of Michael Jackson‘s Thriller begins in 1979, three years before the album came out, when disco crashed and record stores returned millions of unwanted LPs to major labels. That year, recorded-music revenues dropped 10% from the previous year prior, according to RIAA data, and vinyl sales were just beginning to decline after years of growth. CBS Records had massive layoffs that summer; Warner Bros. followed with 55 in December.
“When I came in on Monday, there were half-smoked cigarettes in ashtrays and half-typed memos in typewriters,” recalls Jim Urie, then CBS’ New York branch manager, who pink-slipped 40 on his staff. “It was really, really brutal.”
The industry-wide malaise, coinciding with a worldwide recession, lasted two or three years. “It was the first time all of us young people in the music business had business hit us in the face,” says Dan Beck, Epic Records’ head of publicity at the time, who recalls another “major” wave of company wide CBS layoffs in summer 1982. “One of the first things people cut back was the disposable income — so if somebody bought three or four albums a month, and now they only bought one or two, that was pretty dramatic to our business.”
Thriller, released exactly 40 years ago, on Nov. 30, 1982, helped usher in the music business’ comeback, along with the explosive growth of MTV and the adoption of the compact disc. Jackson’s follow-up to 1979’s Off the Wall took off instantly, beginning with the opening single, “The Girl Is Mine,” a duet with Paul McCartney designed to cross the album over to a white radio audience. All seven of its singles would land in the top 10 of the Hot 100, and the album would spend 37 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Thriller coaxed fans back into record stores to buy multiple copies, thus providing labels with resources to market Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper and, later, hair-metal bands. At the end of 1981, CBS Records, which owned Epic at the time, took in $1 billion in revenue, its worst earnings since 1971; by the end of 1983, its net income increased 26% to $187 million.
“It pulled the music industry out of the doldrums,” says Larry Stessel, then Epic’s West Coast marketing vp. “It helped pull us out of the disco days and it became a whole new world.”
Stessel, who worked closely with Jackson on music videos, says the industry recession from roughly 1979 to 1983 helped his staff learn to economize — which made Epic and other labels leaner and stronger when the business came back.
“It allowed us to utilize our dollars more efficiently, develop local campaigns — if you could break an artist out of Kansas City, then obviously your next goal was to spread it to St. Louis, and maybe your next stop would be Milwaukee or Chicago or Detroit, depending where the airplay was,” he recalls. “It made us smarter marketing people when the doors opened up again after Thriller was released.”
Famously, Thriller‘s sales run kept going and going — it spiked after every new single and video, and surged after Jackson did the moonwalk during NBC’s Motown 25 anniversary special in May 1983. Today, Jackson’s label, Sony, claims Thriller as the best-selling global album of all time; in the U.S., according to the Recording Industry Association of America, it is 34 times platinum, behind the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, at 38 times platinum. Even as Jackson’s legacy is tainted with allegations of child sexual abuse in HBO’s 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland, the album has generated 3.87 million U.S. album-equivalent units in the past 10 years, including 1.2 million in physical album sales, according to Luminate.
“I knew then,” Stessel says of Thriller‘s staying power. “We started literally selling 1.2 million copies over the country every week. The album went from 4 to 6 million copies to 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.”
Thriller did more than reverse CBS Records’ fortunes in the early ’80s. It helped encourage Sony Corp. to buy the label home of Jackson, Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and many other stars for $2 billion in 1988. The idea was to unite software (music) with Sony’s new hardware (compact discs), and Thriller was the most valuable content of all. “You don’t buy Michael Jackson because he sounds like somebody else. You buy him because he resonates with you,” says Mickey Schulhof, then Sony’s top executive in the U.S. “Having content, we knew, was going to be an important part of Sony’s future, and the largest content library in the record industry was CBS Records. It was an easy decision.”
Thriller made Urie, CBS’ New York branch manager back then, forget those painful 1979 layoffs — almost. “If you have a big enough record — and this is certainly true today — it throws off so much profit over its lifetime that it really can change things,” he says. “It cures all ills.”