What Sold 8 Million Michael Jackson CDs?

So let me get this right.

Michael Jackson dies -- the music industry's Black Elvis -- and Sony Music ships 8 million CDs worldwide. Some 800,000 were sold in the U.S. alone.

That’s 8 million pieces of outdated, non-digital physical product on one artist in just 14 days.

My friend, the brilliant music industry analyst Steve Meyer reminded me of this recently. He publishes the best weekly music industry summary I know of.

Steve recalled that when John Lennon died, Capitol Records sold out every Beatles and Lennon album within 24 hours and the plant went into round the clock production to catch up to feed the demand -- that was vinyl, by the way.

Capitol's entire year was made in the subsequent months following Lennon's death. And even though the Beatles catalog is different from Jackson's it seemed that retail increased across the board at that time.

Huge sellers like this brought with it the increased sale of other artist's product.

The REAL questions to be asked about this huge spike are: a) how long will it last?; b) did it bring with it an increase in overall sales in the industry?

We may never know for sure because you can't count on the record industry to count what they sell correctly. Thought you might appreciate this excellent piece in The Wall Street Journal on the labels' off the wall accounting.

Michael Jackson's death indicates that consumers will still purchase great albums when buying the entire album is worthwhile -- i.e., Thriller, Greater Hits, Number Ones, etc.

Even though downloads were in the millions following Michael Jackson's death, it doesn't compare with CD sales.

I agree with Steve's assessment but there is one more thing.

Without radio, this level of CD blowout doesn't happen.


Say what you want about awful programming on radio, but after consolidated stations got caught with their pants down in the hours immediately after Jackson's death due to voice tracking, syndication and network programming, they have been banging the hell out of all things Michael Jackson since.

Of course, to hear SoundExchange and the labels argue their position that the egg comes before the chicken, it's the labels that have laid an egg here.

Putting Long Tail aside (Long Tail has proven to be non-existent) and factoring in the death of radio as a hitmaker, something helped sell Michael Jackson music.

Was it TMZ or CNN?

Couldn't have been Larry King, right?

Or wrong?

Was it People Magazine?


The iTunes store?

Free YouTube videos of Thriller downloaded millions of times?

It sure wasn't social networking or was it?

And, because the labels are in a copyright fight with radio stations in an attempt to tax them further for playing their records, radio couldn't have driven all those CD and download sales, correct?

Well the answer is quite simple -- "that, too".

Everything sells music and while radio isn't what it used to be with the next generation, it still has some kick left with Gen X and Baby Boomers. As I said you wouldn't know that the way SoundExchange postures for repeal of radio's performance tax exemption. Why give comfort to the enemy.

If we're learning anything from the demise of a musical icon (and I say learning because new information comes forward every day), it is that:

1. There is no Long Tail -- not that we needed the death of Michael Jackson to prove it. The labels sell a comparatively limited number of popular items to generate their profit. Most recorded music doesn't sell anything or next to nothing.

2. Radio is still big with Gen Xers and Baby Boomers -- and Gen Y will be perfectly happy finding a cheap or free digital copy of any music they want and/or knowing that they have the comfort of seeing Thriller video for free on YouTube whenever their hearts desire.

3. Hard goods like CDs are worth the price when a consumer gets something for it -- like lots of hits. However, a generation that cherry picks the music they want to download will be quite content with continuing to cherry pick thus don't read anything into the huge number of Jackson CDs that have recently been sold when it comes to the next generation.

4. Record labels are preventing -- that's right, preventing -- the further sale of music by charging prohibitive fees to webcasters and podcasters who could have had ready-made followings set to buy music from the labels.

5. Everything sells music -- gossip columns, bloggers -- even newspapers.

Look at the NFL -- not exactly in the same league with record labels. The NFL doesn't miss an opportunity to leverage their product everywhere a football fan could possibly exist. They also have to deal with piracy on the Internet, but the management strategy of constraining exposure for fear of having content stolen is an exclusive trait of the lawyers who run the music industry.

Michael Jackson has proven that he is in fact still alive and that it is the record industry that actually died.

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