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Michael Jackson's success explained to my daughter (and her friends)...

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

I had a long and interesting conversation the other day with my daughter and some of her musician friends about the success of Michael Jackson and his "value" in this day and age. This is not the first time that young people have asked me about this. As a high school teacher, I have often been approached in recent years by teenagers coming to me at the end of the hour to question me about the true value of Michael Jackson's success by today's standards. Some of them were very young when Michael died and felt the shock of their parents. They had listened to and watched Michael with them at the time and had been amazed, despite the decades that had passed, by his performances, his charisma, his music. Others did not know him and were born after this shock wave. For them, despite everything, Michael Jackson remains a reference. Because he is described to them as such by some media or the stars they admire and who claim to be influenced by him. Because they feel, when they watch or listen to him, that there is something inexplicable that continues to fascinate, to "make the difference".

Here is the transcription of the notes I took, therefore, following my exchange with some of these young people, approaching their twenties, one evening when the clock was not putting any pressure on anyone, neither on them to ask questions, to have an attentive ear and time for reflection, nor on me to go into a little detail.

How is it possible that we still talk about Michael Jackson's success as the greatest of all time? It's outdated, isn't it? Other artists have done better since then!

Well, it depends on what you call "success". Is it the number of records sold? Is it the notoriety ?

Well, both, I would say. When you see the number of views of some artists today on YouTube or listening and downloading platforms, it's been a long time since Michael Jackson was beaten!

As for the fact that he is known, yes, it is true that we still know him. But here again, I don't understand why. What makes him still famous and that we continue to diffuse his music and to talk about him (beyond the "business")?

So to answer you first about the commercial success, you have to measure one thing. At the time, success was counted in number of records sold. Today, artists don't sell much anymore because you, the young people, listen to streaming or download music. So, today, we take into account the views, the downloads, we make ratios to transform the views into theoretical downloads and the downloads into potential sales.

Well, there's even a children's music, at the moment, which has reached more than 10 billion views*. Even artists like Ed Sheeran or Bruno Mars have reached several billions of views with their songs** whereas I think "Billie Jean" only reached 1 billion views a few years ago***.

Sure, but there are two things you have to consider. Since when has this view count existed? Did it exist in the 1980s to 2000, during Michael Jackson's, shall we say, "adult" career? No.

At that time, we counted the number of records (albums, singles, remixes) and cassettes sold. If we could count the number of times such or such song was listened to, on the turntable, in the car, on the walkman, can you imagine the number of "views" that would have to be added to the number of records or physical supports sold? That would be tens or even hundreds of billions, when you know the sales figures of an album like "Thriller"! Can you imagine that in 1982 alone, the album (I'm not talking about the singles) sold 32 million copies? How many times do you think each track has been listened to and re-listened to in a single year? And until today?

And then, beyond the statistics, what is the value of these "views"? Does the user watch or listen to this or that song because he really likes it, or is it by curiosity, by chance? What investment is there, in reality, behind these views? When you buy an album or a single, you show a real interest because you pay. It may be a risky bet, when you don't know what to expect, but... precisely! What a great sign of confidence in the artist! So yes, a download is already more engaging than a listening... But when you know how much a subscription to a platform costs to have access to downloads... it's ridiculous... Paying 7, 10 or even 14 € to have access to everything, when you pay between 15 and 20 euros for a CD and much more for a vinyl, which includes only the music of one artist! No, I think we can say that the gesture of having to buy a record or a cassette was a real commitment and has, symbolically, much more value than a view or 10 views or listenings of which we don't know what motivated them...

Ah yes, that's not bad... I never thought of that... We don't usually think about that...

But still! You say that record sales are no longer important in our time, but there are still artists like Ninho or Jul who have won more than 100 gold records or stars like Taylor Swift or BTS who break all sales records in the world!

Yes, but... the second thing you have to realize is that the calculations to get those famous gold or platinum records have changed.

On the one hand, these awards no longer take into account only the sales of records, but also the listenings and downloads.

On the other hand, the number of units sold depends on the countries, but also and especially on the times!

To give you an example, in France, until 2006, to get a gold record you had to have sold 100,000 albums. Nowadays, you need to have sold half of them. If you sell 100,000 albums today, you get a platinum record!

As for the United States, it's not 100,000 or 200,000 albums that you have to sell to get a gold record, but 500,000!

It's normal, the ratio depends on the size of the market! But you already understand that a Michael Jackson's gold record doesn't weigh the same, in terms of units sold, as a French artist's gold record!

And you have to take into account the time, moreover... Because a gold record album in France in 1980 was worth 100,000 records sold, when today it is worth only 50,000. And on the singles side, a gold record in France in 1980 was worth 500,000 records sold, when in 2016 it was only worth... 75 000, more than 5 times less!

So what does a gold record of Jul worth? When you know that the figures take into account, in addition since 2016, to potential sales, the number of online listenings and downloads...

Well, indeed... It's not comparable. It's not the same time, not the same scale. But today, what counts a lot is the tours ! The artists earn a lot of money with the tours I think ! And Michael Jackson didn't make much money from touring!

Yes, artists are successful because of touring. It has become a money-making business, touring. Even if they are expensive, they allow to earn as much, if not more than the dividends of sales, downloads or listening. And that, it is necessary to know that it is far from having always been the case! In Michael's time, and before him, since the beginning of the music industry, most tours were money pits. Artists made money from record sales, but not so much from concerts and shows, which cost the labels a lot of money. The tours were interesting because there were spin-offs afterwards: people went to buy the records, they bought the merchandise, the magazines etc. At a time when theaters, especially in France and in Europe, were few and far between and when the arrival of artists, even more so in the provinces, was an event, this had an important secondary impact. But here again, you have to know one thing: it's Michael Jackson who turned the tables. He is the first artist to have made so much profit from his tours that he didn't collect the fees and gave them to associations or charities. For example, the tour that followed "Thriller", with his brothers, the Victory Tour in 1984, generated 75 million revenues (which would correspond today to 184 million) and 1.36 million profit, with only 2.75 million spectators... As for the Bad Tour, it generated 125 million in revenue (which would correspond today to nearly 272 million) and a little over a million in profit, with 4.5 million spectators. The profits from these two tours exceeded, at the time, those of other big names such as Bowie, U2, Pink Floyd, Madonna or the Rolling Stones. As a result, merchandising, as we say today, was enough for Jackson. Rather than pay taxes that he didn't know what they would be spent on, he preferred to defiscate them by giving away his fees.

In fact, he is the first artist to have earned so much money directly from his tours, and not only in terms of consecutive record sales... And this inversion of values has never stopped since, since during the years 2010 to 2020, it is no longer 8 tours, as in the 1980s, that have generated revenues of more than 100 million dollars, but more than 20 tours that have generated between 200 and over 500 million dollars!

* I searched, it is the song "Baby Shark" which reaches more than 12 billion views in this beginning of the year 2023

** Again I looked, I think he meant "Shape of you" (5.8 billion views) and "Uptown Funk" (4.7 billion views)

*** That's right, it was in 2021.


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