His injuries, however, do not prove to be critical: By the next day, Michael is happily joking with his doctors and fellow patients. But the incident may stand as a cautionary symbol for his future – the future he needs so badly to believe he still can control. Can he? And if not, whom can he trust, rely on, confide in? Whom can he turn to? These are increasingly crucial questions. Michael’s money-minting stellar status is undeniable; but in the wrong hands, even superstars can get burned. And badly.
How big is Michael Jackson? Let’s put it in the context of some of the biggest albums of the last year: Add up all the copies of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, the Police’s Synchronicity, the Rolling Stones’ Undercover, Culture Club’s Colour by Numbers, Quiet Riot’s Metal Health and Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger that have been sold in the U.S. A lot of records, right? Now double that figure. That’s how big Michael Jackson is.
Jackson’s Thriller album has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide – more than Grease, more than Saturday Night Fever, more than any other album in history. Thriller makes even Jackson’s previous LP, Off the Wall, which sold 8 million copies, look like something of a stiff. In the one year and two months since its release, 15 million copies of Thriller have been sold in the United States alone. The LP has gone platinum in fourteen foreign countries, gold in seven more. The record is unstoppable. In January, right after Michael swept the American Music Awards, more than a million copies of Thriller were sold in just one five-day period. The following week, after his accident in L.A., over 700,000 copies were sold.
All of which means that Michael Jackson is a very rich twenty-five-year-old. According to his attorney, John Branca, “Michael has the highest royalty rate in the record business.” (Michael would not be interviewed for this article; he referred all questions to Branca, a trusted adviser.) That royalty rate, which escalates along with sales, is reported to be in the very exclusive neighborhood of forty-two percent of the wholesale price of each record sold. In other words, Jackson is apparently paid about $2.10 on every album sold in the U.S., or a total of nearly $32 million on Thriller’s domestic sales alone. Add to that another $15 million or so in foreign royalties, and you begin to get some idea of Jackson’s commercial clout. That doesn’t include the publishing royalties for the four songs that he wrote on Thriller.
But you get the picture. Some sixty weeks after its release, Thriller was still the Number One album on the pop charts, and it has been Number One for a total of twenty-nine mind-whirling weeks.
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No other pop star has ever sold so many records. No other album has ever spawned seven Top Ten singles (“Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “The Girl Is Mine,” “Human Nature,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” and “Thriller”). Small wonder, then, that concert promoters around the country see the Jacksons’ upcoming concert trek as not only the tour of the year, but possibly the biggest performance gold mine of all time. Michael Jackson’s drawing power alone is apparently limitless: New York promoter Ron Delsener estimates the Jacksons could sell out a full week of dates at the 60,000-seat Shea Stadium and still not exhaust ticket demand.
As currently mapped out – forty shows beginning in early summer and spread out over thirteen weeks (to conserve his energy, Michael won’t do more than three shows per week) – about 1.2 million people are expected to attend the concerts. Depending on ticket price (either twenty or twenty-five dollars), that would mean a gross of either $24 million or $30 million. Assuming the latter figure, and deducting $6 million for expenses, that would leave $24 million net profit, eighty-five percent of which would go to the Jacksons, with the rest being divided between Don King and Joe and Katherine Jackson – $3.4 million for each member of the group (Michael will get the same amount as each of his five brothers); $1.8 million for King; and $900,000 each for Joe Jackson and his wife. Just the droppings from such a windfall are the stuff of which promoters’ dreams are made.
Predictably, there is also talk of a concert film and of a live satellite broadcast of one of the shows. Plans abound: a film based on “Billie Jean,” a Michael Jackson doll, a Michael Jackson leather jacket, trading cards, even a Michael Jackson postage stamp for a Caribbean country.
Other deals abound. Foremost among them is a book that Michael will write with the help of a still-to-be-hired author. “It is not just an autobiography,” says his literary agent, Joy Harris. “It will be primarily pictures and drawings and poetry, and then a substantial text. You know, he’s not forty years old, so I don’t think he feels that it’s time to do his autobiography, but it is the time to make this statement.” Editing the book for Doubleday will be Jacqueline Onassis. Harris describes the deal as being “way over a million dollars.”
And that’s just for starters. “In the last two weeks,” says Branca, “we’ve put together merchandising deals for Michael on a one-year basis with advance guarantees in the millions.”
It’s all a very far cry from those days in the mid-Seventies when the once popular Jackson 5 – their sales sagging, the brothers complaining that their creativity was being stifled by their own record company – left Motown Records to go to Epic, one of the CBS labels. The creative leeway they were looking for wasn’t immediately forthcoming, however: There was little confidence in the group’s songwriting ability, and Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who developed the lush Philadelphia-soul style, were brought in as producers. The dramatic success of the group’s self-produced 1978 Destiny album and its platinum single, “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” changed all that somewhat, but not enough for the Jacksons’ father. Joe Jackson, who later claimed he needed help in dealing with the power structure at CBS, hired the management team of Ron Weisner and Freddy DeMann to replace his own longtime partner, Richard Arons.