Michael Jackson’s Thriller Turns 30
Billboard has an interesting history about the November 30, 1982 release of Thriller. In it, we learn of technology disruption (FM was replacing AM radio) and the audience fragmentation that occurred because of it.
We also learn about CBS Records’ concern over the album’s potential success:
Since the start of the [80s], black music had been increasingly banished from most white-targeted radio stations. This was partially due the virulent, reactionary anti-disco backlash that resulted in the implosion of that genre at the end of 1979. As the 80’s dawned, programmers increasingly stayed clear of rhythm-driven black music out of fear of being branded “disco,” even when the black music in question bore little resemblance to disco. This backlash was greatly magnified by the demise of AM mass appeal Top 40 radio at the hands of FM, which led to black artists being ghettoized on urban contemporary radio, while disappearing from pop radio, which focused on a more narrow white audience.
How dramatic was the decline of black music on the pop charts in that period? In 1979, nearly half of the songs on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 pop chart could also be found on the urban contemporary chart. By 1982, the amount of black music on the Hot 100 was down by almost 80%.
Also, and notably, MTV had just launched. But the music videos the station played were very white as it followed the playlists occurring on the FM charts. They too were very hesitant to give Jackson airtime.
[MTV executives at the time] concede that the channel initially assumed it would not play the video, as its thumping beat and urban production did not fit the channel’s “rock” image. They contend however that in mid-February, after seeing the clip—which was possibly the best that had ever come across their desks—they began to re-think things.
Good thing they did.
How a legendary album got its footing.