A Michael Jackson Thriller For Sony

If nothing else, Sony proved once again that it knows how to spend money. From the 30-foot inflated Michael Jackson statue that loomed above Tower Records on Hollywood's Sunset Strip to the mammoth electronic sign blinking over Times Square, it was hard to miss the June 20 launch of the latest album by the music industry's self-styled King of Pop. To critics, the album is alternately brilliant and bloated. But to Sony Records, which waited nearly four years for it, HIStory may be one of the least profitable best-selling albums ever released.

In all, Sony Corp.'s Epic Records unit says it spent $30 million to launch Jackson's double-CD offering. That dwarfs the average $2 million a record company might spend to promote a Madonna, Rolling Stones, or Aerosmith release. But industry observers say the total Jackson rollout tab, including his music video with sister Janet Jackson for the song Scream, may well run closer to $40 million. Add in the estimated $10 million it cost Jackson to produce the 30-song album, and the moonwalking superstar is in a spending orbit all his own.

Epic shipped 2 million copies of HIStory initially and has told trade publications it expects to sell 20 million in all. Because Jackson has pledged royalties from some of his earlier albums against the costs of making HIStory, Sony's breakeven point on his latest could be as little as 5 million copies, say rival record executives. But even that number may be hard to reach, according to one longtime record executive, given the hefty $32.98 price tag and the public dissatisfaction with Jackson's bizarre looks and the child-molestation allegations against him. Adds Irma Zandl, head of New York-based youth marketer Zandl Group: "He seems to have peaked out, stayed in some sort of freeze frame, and kids recognize he's no longer a musical trend-setter."

Then there's the deal Sony signed with Jackson in 1991. His contract gives him a 21% royalty rate and an unprecedented 50-50 profit split with Sony. "That probably won't be much of an issue anyway," snipes one rival record exec, "because there won't be any profits."

Still, Sony and the Jackson team have mounted an impressive marketing campaign. The campaign includes 1,000 trailers in movie theaters, print ads in USA Today, Us magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and TV spots on morning news shows. "Listening parties," where local radio executives munched on hors d'oeuvres while listening to Jackson's music, were arranged in 11 cities around the country. The cable music channel VH1 Networks staged a Michael Jackson week, with videos and specials, and Jackson is scheduled to appear during its June 22 VH1 awards show.

TIGHTLY SCRIPTED. By the time 60 million people saw Jackson and wife Lisa Marie on Capital Cities/ABC's Prime Time Live on June 14, everything about the campaign seemed scripted. Down the road, there's more scheming. As many as seven videos and nine singles will be released to radio stations. An HBO special is planned, along with an international tour sometime next year.

Early indications are that the media blitz is working. Tower Records in Hollywood sold 250 CDs within hours of its midnight release. At Sam Goody's on Sixth Avenue in New York, sales clerks were busily restocking during the day. "As long as he is producing good music, I'm going to buy his stuff," says Brian Teta, a 19-year-old from Long Island who used his lunch hour to pick up the new CD. By most accounts, Jackson could set a record for the most albums sold in a single week, beating the 1.3 million Guns 'N Roses set in 1991 for its double-CD Use Your Illusion I & II. Jackson also may lead off Billboard's Top 200 list.

Whether the Jackson marketing team can keep the sales rolling is another story, however, especially in the wake of such issues as the anti-Semitic language used in his song They Don't Care About Us. Money can buy market share. But it may not be able to overcome a superstar who seems destined to add the title of super-spender to his already bizarre list of accomplishments.

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