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From the archives: Michael Jackson and the changing music industry

Michael Jackson from

Michael Jackson from "Thriller " video. (undated) Credit: Newsday file

This story was originally published in Newsday on June 28, 2009

There will never be another megastar like Michael Jackson.

Like Elvis Presley and The Beatles before him, The King of Pop was as much a product of his times as he was a success due to his singular musical skills.

As sad as his sudden death on Thursday afternoon at his Los Angeles home is, it feels even more tragic because the 50-year-old pop star was in the midst of a comeback. Jackson was in the middle of rehearsals and training for a string of 50 concerts at London's O2 Arena starting this July and continuing into early next year that could have erased the mountain of debt and the lingering questions about whether fans could ever move past the child molestation allegations that he was acquitted of in 2005 and embrace him once again.

Early indications seemed good. He sold 800,000 tickets for the London shows in five hours. There was talk of expanding the tour to cover the world, including America, where he had not performed since 2001. Rumors of A-list collaborations with Kanye West and Akon were popping up, revving up interest that Jackson may have been attempting to recapture the unprecedented success of his 1982 "Thriller" album - the world's biggest-selling album ever.

The problem for Jackson is that he was setting himself up for failure. He could never achieve "Thriller"-size sales and cultural omnipresence again. No one can.


"Structurally, the music industry is no longer geared toward selling profitable hits on the level they were when 'Thriller' was around," says Steve Knopper, author of "Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age." "'Thriller' is an anachronism."

One need only take a quick look at music industry sales figures - down 14.6 percent this year, according to Billboard, as they have dropped for the past eight years - or a lengthy drive to try to find a record store that has even a third of the inventory it had in 1982. The music industry is in free fall and the days when an album could top the charts for 37 weeks the way "Thriller" did are long gone.

Not only does the industry have to deal with technological advances that erode sales and a public that's increasingly more interested in buying a single song and not an album, but it has weakened to the point that radio and TV, especially previously all-music channels like MTV and VH1, support it less and less.

"The music industry is now built for having small hits - small hits that inject themselves into culture in a variety of ways, instead of one gigantic smash hit that everybody has to own," Knopper says. "Some people say that's a bad thing that there's no Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley or The Beatles who will ever come around again and unite us as a culture. But I think it's also a good thing because we all have our little niches and we can all get 'super-served' on Facebook and MySpace and YouTube. We now just pick our spots."


It's that slicing and dicing of audiences into these demographics and the increasingly popular psychographic niches that make it difficult for new artists to be taken seriously in the mainstream and for veteran acts such as U2 and Bruce Springsteen to maintain the cultural currency needed to remain megastars. "Michael Jackson was the pinnacle of a time when pop music really was popular music and everybody was listening at some level to the same songs," says Bill Crandall, AOL Music's vice president and editor in chief. "Back then, an album could be as big as a movie. There could be a song that absolutely everybody was listening to ... That doesn't happen anymore.

"There are still people who sell a fair amount of albums or have tours," Crandall adds. "But the people who are selling the tickets and the people who you're hearing on the radio and the people who you're seeing on TV are not all the same people. Michael Jackson once had the spotlight all to himself."


Terry Stewart, president and chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, says that Jackson earned that spotlight with decades of work with the Jackson 5 and as a solo artist.

"He was a part of the fabric of our lives for so long that he seemed to have a universal appeal that seemingly spanned all ages and races and genders," says Stewart. "His career was so long that many generations got to know him when they were small and grew up with him. You treat that kind of star differently than one who comes into your life when you're 25 or 30."

In these days when celebrities come from practically everywhere - from reality TV shows to YouTube sensations, from scandal survivors to bloggers - the competition for people's attention is exponentially more intense.

"Michael Jackson was a consummate artist," Stewart says. "I don't know that we'll ever see all that in one package again."


Though Michael Jackson was a singular talent, the imprint of his influences could also be seen in his work.

FRED ASTAIRE. The dance legend's moves inspired Jackson so much he based "Smooth Criminal" on a dance sequence in "The Band Wagon."

JAMES BROWN. The onstage work ethic and the flashy dancing of the funk legend was an integral part of Jackson's concert tours.

SAMMY DAVIS JR. Jackson would borrow tapes of Davis' dance routines and incorporate them into his own.

BO DIDDLEY. The simplicity of a blues groove was one of Jackson's starting points in a song.

DIANA ROSS. Jackson was her protégé at Motown and took his approach to ballads as well as his sense for dramatic fashion from her. - Glenn Gamboa



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