Just recently I came across this article on Billboard.com and I found it a very interesting read, and a very good excuse for watching old Michael Jackson music videos. Especially the first 2 pages are eerie: the description of the music industry in the early 80s closely resembles what’s going on right now. It’s a bit of a long read, but very interesting nonetheless. Here are some excerpts that give you an idea what the article is about:
by Steve Greenberg @ Billboard.com
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.
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.
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.
Enter Michael Jackson. By the time he delivered “Thriller” to CBS’s Epic label in 1982, Jackson had been one of the top recording stars in the world for over a dozen years, both with and without his brothers. However, his most recent album, the mega-hit “Off The Wall,” which spawned four Top 10 singles, had been released in 1979, a year when 40% of the songs that reached the Top 3 on the Hot 100 were by black artists, before the wall separating black and white music on the radio arose.
Featuring Jackson’s videos for “Billie Jean” and two weeks later for “Beat It” widened the video-clip channel’s appeal as much as airplay on MTV widened the appeal of Michael Jackson. MTV was already at the white-hot center of the pop universe, but it was only when they added Michael Jackson that they found their real star. The idea of the hottest pop star in the world being shown on TV throughout the day-between the two clips, you didn’t need to sit in front of your TV for very long to catch Michael on MTV-made the network even more talked-about than before. New viewers watched MTV because they’d heard how great the Michael Jackson videos were; at the same time, MTVs core audience was blown away by videos featuring a type of music they weren’t supposed to like-except it turned out they did. To use a modern term to describe what was happening back then, MTV and Michael Jackson made each other go viral.
For all its record-setting accomplishments, the thing which never ceases to amaze me is that Michael Jackson pulled off what is perhaps the rarest trick in any field: After more than a decade of being an absolutely huge superstar, top of his field, sure-thing Hall of Famer, etc., he somehow found an extra gear and suddenly transcended mere superstardom, redefining the very notion of how big someone in his field could be. Try imagining J.K. Rowling suddenly coming out with a series of books that were so much better and more popular than the Harry Potter books that they rendered them a mere footnote to her career and you’ll get the idea of what Michael Jackson accomplished with “Thriller.”
Despite a succession of on-line platforms that assume ever more fragmented audience niches, one would be foolish to bet against the potential for one to arise that encourages audience behavior which favors a vast coalition of sub-groups uniting behind something new and fantastic. Besides, pop music has always thrived on mass excitement; the yearning for shared cultural touchpoints seems to be hardwired into us. What “Thriller” taught us was that the right star, with the right product and the right technological environment, always has the ability to move us and to unite us all.
What are your thoughts on this?