No, Michael Jackson did not sell 750 million albums.

A funny thing happened to Michael Jackson’s sales figures over the past few years: They seemed to have more than tripled:

“In the last three years of his life, long after the release of his final original album, Michael Jackson’s career album sales took a curious leap.

For many years, Mr. Jackson’s lifetime sales tally typically was reported at 200 million albums world-wide. But in late 2006, news articles began putting the number at 750 million, a figure that became part of the popular lore as Mr. Jackson was attempting a comeback. In the last few weeks, it has popped up in obituaries and retrospectives.

So how did the sales figure nearly quadruple? A likely explanation is that a rough tally of individual songs was misinterpreted or misrepresented to reflect album sales. Such a numerical misstep is surprisingly easy to make in the world of album sales figures, where reliable information is spotty in the U.S., and often nonexistent overseas.”

Several fans actually did the heavy lifting of totaling official sales data, country by country. Lau Ho Hoi in Hong Kong noted on the music blog Hitsville that MJ sold 131.5 million albums world-wide, and 65.6 million singles. The total doesn’t include digital downloads, which have taken off for Mr. Jackson since his death. Guillaume Vieira, a Paris engineer, puts the totals at 205.5 million albums.

Neither fan is remotely close to 3/4 of a billion sales.

So how did that number come about? There is a simple explanation: A Publicist made up the 750 million number!

I kid you not:

“That figure first got legs in late 2006, when Raymone Bain, a publicist for Mr. Jackson at the time, touted in a letter to Jackson fan clubs that sales had “exceeded over 750 million units.”

The WSJ article generously spins the error as a misinterpretation of songs sold versus albums — but that’s giving a PR flack way too much credit. Those of us who earn our living in the economic trenches deciphering PR spin know a good bullshit tale when we see one. 750 million albums sure as hell qualifies!


click for interactive WSJ graphic


Spun: The Off-the-Wall Accounting of Record Sales
WSJ, July 15, 2009

Category: Mathematics, Music

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

23 Responses to “750 Million Albums is an Off The Wall Number”

  1. cvienne says:

    Come on Barry…

    Enron, BAC, NFP numbers, NAR numbers, anyone’s wife (on the bathroom scale), your golf handicap…

    Numbers schmumbers…

    Tell ‘em what sound good and they’ll lap it up like an alleycat in front of a bowl of milk on a backdoor step…

  2. Mannwich says:

    I honestly think many of us would be surprised at this point if we were not being lied to by PR and media hacks. Lying has become our new national past-time.

  3. Gene says:

    A friend in the Music industry writes:

    Well, as in any business, there is a lot of misinformation floating around. I was laughing at some of the things I heard on the TV in the Jackson coverage.

    Several points. Even SoundScan is not entirely accurate (though it has become more so over the years). I am aware of certain instances where SoundScan registered more units sold than were manufactured! Now, the more sales there are, the more accurate SoundScan tends to be. And in this day and age of fewer record stores, it is likely even more accurate.

    Note, too, that RIAA figures (and I think IFPI as well, but don’t know for sure) are shipments, not net sales, so they’re misleading. Albums are sold to retail subject to returns privileges. Not everything that gets shipped sticks! In the old days, companies would sometime ship outrageous numbers for publicity purposes. The old joke is that the record shipped platinum and returned gold. Billboard chart numbers in the pre-SoundScan era are completely unreliable. They were manipulated by everyone (both record companies and stores). SoundScan numbers are not entirely tamper proof either, but much more reliable than pre-SoundScan chart guestimates.

    The most accurate numbers come from royalty statements sent by record companies (though even those unit numbers can be suspect and must be audited). Royalty statements, though, are not public and are closely guarded (as they should be in my view).

    Full disclosure — we represent Quincy Jones (producer of Off the Wall and Thriller).

    Curiously, companies have historically reported “units” rather than gross, as is reported in the film business. I imagine it had much to do with keeping artist in the dark about all the money companies were making and not sharing with them. Now that units are less relevant, it may be time to rethink the practice.

  4. Bill in SF says:

    From: About Raymone Bain

    “Raymone K. Bain is Chairman and CEO of the Raymone K. Bain Companies LLC, and Co-Founder and CEO of Davis, Bain and Associates, Inc., a full-service public relations, production, special events and marketing firm, which has become internationally known and respected, due to it’s representation of some of America’s biggest names in entertainment, sports, politics and government.

    Crisis Management and Damage Control are specialty areas of expertise for Ms. Bain”

    Who knows; she may be up for a PR job with Goldman Sachs.

  5. ben22 says:

    Oh the outrage of the 750 billion claim

    We need more regulation on publicists! We must do something! I’m writing my senator!


    the real numbers are still incredible. I wonder if /when the next artist will come along that can be that big, over basically an entire lifetime no less.

  6. Mannwich says:

    @ben22: No kidding. I’ve actually been quite skilled at ignoring the MJ brouhaha. It’s quite amazing what you don’t miss when you don’t turn on the TV or go to MSM sites.

  7. VennData says:

    RIAA download figures?

  8. cvienne says:

    I can see it coming…

    “O” appoints publicist czar…10 billion annual budget…

  9. cvienne says:


    I can’t help you with the technical narrative aspect of it, but Don Ho has a song about it (which is accompanied by an authoritative ukelele piece)…

    Hope that helps…

  10. Thor says:

    Cvienne – Hah, I love your randomness ;-)

  11. cvienne says:


    we aim to please…

    OR wait (randomness)…do we really aim at all?…I can’t tell…

  12. Whammer says:

    BR, thanks again for helping us fight the good fight against the “90 percent of everything is crap” state of our information resources today.

    @F411 — my opinion on “new learning” stuff is that reading still works. That is, when you try to force everything into video/audio formats, it is too linear. As a consumer of information, I really don’t like being fed video/audio as my only alternative to get the info. This is particularly true when the video/audio is not particularly entertaining.

    Don’t get me wrong, there is a time/place for multimedia presentations to help people learn and understand. But I work for a company who wants everybody to use video all the time to consume bandwidth and drive infrastructure demand. It works sometimes, but not all the time. The message needs to fit the medium.

  13. Thor says:

    Whammer and F411 re video media – I’m with you both on this. I’m an obsessive reader, I’d rather read an article or a book than watch a presentation or a video clip.

    Although I must admit – I think the below educational clip is VERY good.

  14. franklin411 says:

    OT, but does anyone know of a good, brief, authoritative (IE not a blog…sorry Barry!), non-technical history of the credit crisis available on the web? I’m making my reader for my course on US history from 1960-present, and I’d like to include something about the credit bubble, the rise of free market fundamentalism, or something of that nature. The students will be upper division, but it’s not an econ class.

    I’m looking at Bernanke speeches at the moment, but they all seem too technical for the audience.

  15. Thor says:

    Franklin – Barry posted a number of different podcast sites a few weeks ago. NPR also has a number of podcasts on the financial meltdown – the show is called Planet Money. Link below.

  16. franklin411 says:

    Heh! Thanks all, but wow…I didn’t know the NY Times had a huge “credit crisis” section on their website. I found it completely by accident, but it looks very thorough and very accessible.

    Thanks for the link, Thor–it’s something I can use to prepare my lectures. They won’t listen to podcasts, though. It’s funny–we think that undergrads are all about the new tech/internet based learning, but actually we have a hell of a time trying to get them just to watch 2 minute youtube clips. They won’t take it seriously unless it’s in print form. Funny and ironic, but true!


    BR: Yes, we have linked to that — and the WSJ section — in the past

  17. Dogfish says:

    And here I was thinking I was safe from all the jacko hoopla here.

  18. Bob the unemployed says:

    Gawd, when is the Michael Jackson mania going to end. I had thought previously that The Big Picture would have been one of the last sanctuaries of sanity, but now I see even The Big Picture has succumbed to the mania of all things Michael Jackson.

    I think I’ll go find me a cave somewhere until this mess blows over…..

  19. Pat G. says:

    When you think about it, MJ was an “off the wall” kinda guy!!

  20. nemo says:

    Did you know that 85% of all statistics are made up on the spot?

  21. bergsten says:

    I thought 750 million was the number of times “Thriller” has been played these last few days…