Did Michael Jackson’s Thriller really sell a hundred million copies?

From The New Yorker:

In Michael Jackson’s New York Times obituary, the singer is credited with selling a hundred million copies of his most popular album, “Thriller”—and with selling an “estimated” seven hundred and fifty million records worldwide over his career. In a new book on Jackson, “Untouchable,” the writer Randall Sullivan repeats the hundred-million figure for “Thriller.” And earlier this year, fan sites were a buzzing with the news that the Michael Jackson estate had “confirmed” that Jackson had sold a total of a billion records.

Music-industry sales figures are a complex subject, but this doesn’t excuse the fact that they are often exaggerated for public consumption. The numbers surrounding Jackson have always been particularly outlandish. I was amused, for example, while reading a memoir by Jackson’s record producer, Quincy Jones, “Q on Producing,” to see that “Thriller” had sold a hundred million copies—and then, a few pages later, that it had sold a hundred and twenty million. I was sure by the end up of the book it would have risen to a hundred and fifty million. As for that billion figure, that came from a press release for Jackson’s estate a couple of years ago, which asserted, in passing and with no documentation, that the singer had sold an “estimated” billion records.

Guillaume Vieira, who, in his off hours as a web developer, obsessively collects sales news from labels and official industry statements all over the globe. He charts the figures carefully, culls more data from a network of sources in the industry in various countries, and analyzes national sales patterns to fill in the blanks. I have no way of checking all of his figures, of course, but his methodology strikes me as more persuasive than the self-serving assertions of record labels.

Vieira’s data collection encompasses sales of albums, singles, videos, ringtones, and digital downloads, all the way back to Jackson’s time with the Jackson 5. He found that, around the time Jackson died, Jackson had sold about four hundred million records, give or take. Since Jackson’s death, he’s moved some forty million albums and fifty million song downloads, plus a lot of DVDs and ringtones for a total, more or less, of roughly five hundred and fifteen million sold. That’s about the same as the five hundred million-plus credited to the Beatles but less than any of the cumulative totals of the individual Beatles, Ringo included. (Paul McCartney, Vieira says, has total sales of some six hundred and seventy million.)

I am always happy to exchange e-mails with Vieira, so I asked him what, based on his research, the other best-selling albums worldwide were. Here’s his list:
1. Michael Jackson, “Thriller”: 66,200,000
2. Soundtrack, “Grease”: 44,700,000
3. Pink Floyd, “The Dark Side of the Moon”: 44,200,000
4. Whitney Houston et al., “The Bodyguard”: 38,600,000
5. The Bee Gees at al., “Saturday Night Fever”: 37,200,000
6. The Eagles, “Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975”: 36,900,000
7. Bob Marley, “Legend”: 36,800,000
8. Led Zeppelin, “IV”: 35,700,000
9. AC/DC, “Back in Black”: 35,700,000
10. Shania Twain, “Come on Over”: 35,400,000
11. Michael Jackson, “Bad”: 34,700,000
12. Soundtrack, “Dirty Dancing”: 33,300,000
13. Dire Straits, “Brothers in Arms”: 33,200,000
14. Alanis Morissette, “Jagged Little Pill”: 33,200,000
15. Fleetwood Mac, “Rumours”: 33,000,000
16. The Beatles, “1”: 32,400,000
17. Pink Floyd, “The Wall”: 31,900,000
18. ABBA, “Gold”: 31,400,000
19. Guns N’ Roses, “Appetite for Destruction”: 30,800,000
20. Simon & Garfunkel, “Greatest Hits”: 30,700,000
21. Queen, “Greatest Hits”: 30,600,000
22. Celine Dion, “Let’s Talk About Love”: 30,300,000
23. Michael Jackson, “Dangerous”: 30,200,000
24. Celine Dion, “Falling into You”: 30,200,000
25. The Eagles, “Hotel California”: 30,000,000
26. Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.”: 29,100,000
27. Metallica, “Metallica”: 28,900,000
28. Meat Loaf, “Bat Out of Hell”: 28,700,000
29. Soundtrack, “Titanic”: 28,500,000
30. The Beatles, “Abbey Road”: 28,300,000

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