How Michael Jackson's "Thriller" changed music business

Mon Jul 6, 2009 7:57am EDT

Superstar Michael Jackson performs as fans wave their hands during the World Music Awards ceremony at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club, May 8, 1996. REUTERS/file

Superstar Michael Jackson performs as fans wave their hands during the World Music Awards ceremony at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club, May 8, 1996.

Credit: Reuters/file

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LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - In early 1984, when Epic Records executives presented their slate of upcoming releases at the convention in Hawaii of parent company CBS Records, they couldn't resist playing up the success they were experiencing. So between the pitches for new albums, Epic inserted stock footage of semi trucks and a voice-over that thunderously announced, "There goes another load of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' albums!"

Trucks weren't really leaving the warehouse every few minutes, but "Thriller" was still shattering expectations more than a year after its November 30, 1982, release. Epic was selling more than 1 million copies per month in the United States alone.

Nearly 27 years after its release, "Thriller" still stands as the best-selling studio album in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, which has certified it 28-times platinum. More than 50 million copies have been sold internationally, according to estimates.

But the album's success can't be measured by sales alone. As Jackson moonwalked his way into music history, "Thriller" set a new benchmark for blockbusters that changed how the music business promoted and marketed superstar releases. It also changed MTV, breaking down the cable network's racial barriers and raising the bar for video quality.

FIRST OF ITS KIND

From the beginning, Epic intended to live up to its name. The label made "Thriller" the first major release to debut worldwide simultaneously, the first album to be promoted for close to two years instead of the usual six or eight months and the first album to spin off seven singles to radio -- more than double the normal number.

Along the way, "Thriller" redefined the expectations for blockbuster releases. Starting in 1984, Columbia released seven singles from Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," all of which landed in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. Around the same time, Warner Bros. sent to radio five singles from Prince's "Purple Rain." Mercury found seven singles on Def Leppard's "Hysteria," all of which went to the pop chart. All three albums eventually sold more than 10 million copies each in the United States alone.

Before all that, "Thriller" gave a much-needed boost to the music business, then suffering from its second slump in three years. At the time, Billboard reported that record shipments had declined by 50 million units between 1980 and 1982.

It was a bleak time, and CBS staffers referred to August 13, 1982, as "Black Friday." "We had a major layoff that day," remembers Epic/Portrait/CBS Associated Labels vice president of merchandising Dan Beck. "Half of the marketing department was let go at Epic. It was very upsetting because nothing like that had ever happened before."

Then Jackson changed everything. "There is no question that 'Thriller' was the driving force behind what became the hottest span in Epic's history," Beck says. After that, the label had major hits with Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club and REO Speedwagon. The "Flashdance" soundtrack and the Police's "Synchronicity" also helped lure fans back into stores.

WRITING ON THE 'WALL'

Jackson made a name for himself in the early '70s as the young frontman of Motown's Jackson 5 and as a solo artist. The Jacksons had left Motown in 1975 and released three albums on Epic, the most recent of which, "Destiny," peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 in 1978. But Jackson became a bona fide superstar with his first solo album for Epic, "Off the Wall."

As Jackson recorded that album, which came out in 1979, his team decided to bring it to the broadest audience possible.

"Our whole mind-set was that we were making music for the masses, and part of the big picture was to get the record company to turn around and market and promote to a mass market," says Ron Weisner, who was co-managing Jackson with Freddy DeMann at the time. "If you were a black artist, you were put in a black music division, and that meant the marketing campaign was an ad in Jet and Ebony. Our attitude was, 'Let the public decide -- don't just present it to a black market only.'"

From the moment Epic's pop and R&B promotion teams heard "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," the album's opening track and lead single, they knew they had a major hit on their hands, recalls former West Coast regional urban promotion manager Maurice Warfield. So they took the unprecedented step of promoting singles to R&B and pop radio at the same time.

"It wasn't the usual 'Build up the artist at urban radio first and then go to pop,'" Warfield says. "We knew right off: We're all going to work the records at the same time."

"Don't Stop" debuted July 28, 1979, and became Jackson's first No. 1 R&B and pop single as a solo artist since his 1972 hit "Ben." That was followed in November by a second No. 1 R&B and pop single, "Rock With You," then the album's title track and "She's Out of My Life."

"'Off the Wall' opened up something at radio that was never closed again," Weisner says. "The wall was down by the time we got to 'Thriller.'"

'THRILLER' TIME

When Jackson first suggested working with Quincy Jones on "Off the Wall," Epic executives worried that the producer was too jazzy. But Jackson, who had met Jones when he played the Scarecrow in the movie version of "The Wiz" and Jones produced the soundtrack, persisted. At the time, Jones was struck by Jackson's "profound discipline and focus"; he knew that "he could still be bigger than everyone else was saying."

Jones began laying the foundation for "Thriller" in December 1981, when he took Jackson to Tucson, Ariz., to spend three days recording the Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine." "Michael and I just wanted to work with Paul, who I'd known for years," Jones remembers.

Work began in earnest in August 1982. Jackson wrote several of the songs: "The Girl Is Mine," "Beat It," "Billie Jean" and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." Among the other writers was former Heatwave keyboardist Rod Temperton, who wrote "Rock With You" on "Off the Wall." He brought them an "amazing" song he had, titled "Starlight Love," Jones says, which eventually became the song "Thriller."

Despite the success of "Off the Wall," Jones says, their working relationship was very much about creativity for creativity's sake. "You don't make records to say how many you're going to sell," he says. "You can't control that. You make something that touches you and will hopefully touch someone else."

One priority was to balance "Thriller" between R&B and pop, disco and rock, funk and ballads. "We thought at one point we were done," recalls Greg Phillinganes, a keyboardist on the "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" albums. "And Quincy was like, 'No, not so fast. We need certain missing elements.' Michael was pretty disappointed, but then that's how we got ('The Lady in My Life') and 'Beat It.'"

At the time, disco still dominated the charts, and Jones and Jackson wanted to transcend it. "'Beat It' came about with Eddie Van Halen because we wanted to do a black rock 'n' roll song," Jones says. "The Knack's 'My Sharona' was No. 1 at the time, plus we had to crawl over disco, which was still so big. We wanted to find a way to transcend all that. By God's blessing, we got out of the box."

WORLDWIDE APPEAL

Jackson and Jones continued tinkering through the fall of 1982, which meant that Epic had to move back the album's release date a number of times. The day before Jones finally turned in "Thriller," after he and Jackson had spent all night working, he realized that there was too much music on each side. "You need big, fat grooves to make it happen on vinyl," he says. "We had 24-27 minutes, which makes the sound smaller. We had to get it down to 19-20 minutes."

So Jones and Jackson pared down the intro to "Billie Jean," removed a verse from "The Lady in My Life" and finished the project. Or so Epic thought. At the very last minute, still unhappy with some aspects of the album's sound, they remixed the entire album over a marathon weekend, says Ron McCarrell, VP of marketing for Epic/Portrait/CBS Associated Labels.

Epic executives were eager to release "Thriller" in time for Christmas 1982. As Jones and Jackson fiddled, they decided to wait until January 1983. Then the label's hand was forced when the album leaked to radio and stations began playing multiple cuts. Once stations put songs in heavy rotation, Epic senior VP/general manager Don Dempsey decided to rush-release it on November 30, 1982.

"Thriller" entered the Billboard 200 at No. 11 during the week ending December 25, 1982. After 10 weeks on the chart, it knocked Men at Work's "Business as Usual" out of the top spot and stayed at No. 1 for 37 nonconsecutive weeks. The first single, "The Girl Is Mine," reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, but didn't even hint at the hit Epic had on its hands. Then the fun began.

Epic's head of promotion, Frank Dileo (who grew so close to Jackson during "Thriller" that he later became his manager), decided to release two singles concurrently in order to broaden the album's audience. As the second single, "Billie Jean," climbed the pop chart, Epic released "Beat It," a driving rock track anchored by a searing Eddie Van Halen guitar solo.

"Frank said, 'Let's release another single; we'll blow their minds,'" McCarrell says. It did. During the week of December 18, 1982, "Beat It" was one of Billboard's top three adds on rock radio alongside cuts by Sammy Hagar and Bob Seger. The song peaked at No. 14 on Billboard's nascent rock tracks chart.

Former rock radio consultant Lee Abrams -- now chief innovation officer at Tribune Co. -- describes the period as "kind of a confusing time" for album-oriented rock. The format was at a crossroads, caught between AOR stalwarts like Led Zeppelin and new groups like the Police and U2.

"AOR had to start thinking more," Abrams says, in order to remain relevant. "A few stations tried 'Beat It,' and the reaction was fantastic. It generated requests and opened a lot of programmers' eyes. AOR was accepting someone not in the traditional club, but the timeless, universal quality of the song couldn't be avoided."

JACKSON GETS HIS MTV

From the start, Jackson's vision for "Thriller" was to "take it to the next giant level," Weisner says. "It was about how we were going to marry the album with the visual extension."

So it was with high hopes that Weisner walked into the office of a 16-month-old network called MTV with the Steve Barron-directed clip for "Billie Jean." While MTV had played videos by a few black artists, including Garland Jeffries and Joan Armatrading, it had notoriously declined to play the video for Rick James' "Super Freak," leading the R&B singer to brand the channel as racist.

"I remember taking a red-eye to New York and going to MTV (with) a rough cut of 'Billie Jean' and MTV declining the video," Weisner recalls. He walked from there to Epic headquarters. "I sat down with (CBS Records head) Walter Yetnikoff," he says. "We then went to (CBS head) Bill Paley, and he and Walter (told MTV), 'This video is on by the end of the day or (CBS Records) isn't doing business with MTV anymore.' The record company played hardball, and that was the day that changed history. That was the video that broke the color barrier."

That's not the version of events remembered by Les Garland, then-senior executive/VP of programing at MTV Networks. "'Billie Jean' set the standard that day for what excellence in music video stood for," he says. "There was never a question that we were putting it on." The only delay, he says, was that he wanted to show the clip to his boss, Bob Pittman. "There was never a threat from Walter Yetnikoff -- it's folklore," he says. "He got more upset because we didn't play Willie Nelson or Barbra Streisand." (Yetnikoff didn't respond to interview requests for this story.)

Either way, "Billie Jean" immediately went into heavy rotation with eight plays per day, catapulting Jackson and MTV to another level of success. And Jackson's triumph broke down the barrier for Prince, Billy Ocean and Eddy Grant.

"'Billie Jean' opened (the door) to more R&B videos being made, and that led us to making more space for a wider variety of music that went beyond this initial AOR format," Garland says.

MTV wasn't the only TV exposure that changed the course of Jackson's career. On May 16, 1983, NBC broadcast "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever," and Jackson performed an instantly iconic rendition of "Billie Jean" and unveiled his sequined glove and the James Brown-inspired moonwalk. The next day, Fred Astaire called Jackson to congratulate him.

"That was staggering," Weisner recalls. "Everyone forgets that all those Motown giants and legends were on the show. The next day all anyone was talking about was Michael."

And that was before the video for "Thriller" itself. Although the videos for "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" increased Jackson's star power, the 14-minute clip for "Thriller" became a pop culture sensation.

Made at a cost of $1 million -- in 1983 dollars -- "Thriller" was the first video shot by a film director, John Landis. "We were making most videos for $30,000-$40,000," McCarrell says. "I remember falling off my chair when I saw the budget."

Fascination with the video grew so intense that Epic created an hourlong documentary called "Making Michael Jackson's Thriller," which aired on MTV and was eventually sent to retail. It was the first time such a package had been created around a single video, and "it started a commercial market for videos," says former Recording Industry Association of America CEO/chairman Hilary Rosen, now a CNN commentator and managing director of the Brunswick Group.

Jackson and MTV's fortunes were so intricately linked that Garland, who is now a consultant, says he can't even think about how MTV would have evolved without Jackson. "All I can tell you is the path would have been very different. I don't think it would have been good."

Ultimately, "Thriller" spent 122 weeks on the Billboard 200, leading Epic to one of its greatest periods of prosperity. Given the decline in album sales, the rise of digital downloads and the lack of an heir apparent to Jackson, it's unlikely another album will ever dominate radio, video or the collective consciousness the way "Thriller" did.

As Garland puts it, "We saw the top of the mountain with 'Thriller.'"

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)

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