When Thriller appeared in stores on November 30, 1982, no one doubted that Michael Jackson had another hit record. But no one ever imagined that it would become the biggest-selling album ever.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the organization that keeps track of how many albums are sold in the US, something that used to result in pretty sketchy numbers. Before the SoundScan era (i.e. pre-March 1, 1991), album sales were best on the best guesses of record labels and record stores. With no proper, standardized way of counting how many records were sold, actual sales could be wildly inaccurate–not to mention prone to corruption, exaggeration and various sorts of numbers-goosing.
There’s no doubt Jacko sold boatloads of Thriller between November 30, 1982, and February 28, 1991, but no one knows exactly how many. But using SoundScan data and extrapolating backwards, the RIAA is pretty certain that Thriller has moved 33 million copies in the US.
This “33 times platinum” designation is the highest multiple of platinum albums ever awarded by the RIAA, blowing past the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, which has stalled at about 29 million. Jacko got the sales horsepower to pass the Eagles by dying in 2009.
So how many copies has Thriller sold globally? Nobody knows. Estimates range from 65 to 100 million. Anything in between is as accurate as anyone will ever get.