Why Michael Jackson Stopped Performing At His Peak?

When on January 27th, 1989, Michael Jackson took the stage to perform the last of his Bad world tour in Los Angeles, it was met with great anticipation and fanfare with much of his family in attendance for the performance. In his own words, the concert was not only the last of the extensive tour but was also billed to be his last live performance ever, vowing never to tour again. A firm statement that baffled countless fans as they had just witnessed the soon-to-be awarded King of Pop break ground with his first solo tour, becoming the highest-grossing solo tour in history, as well as the highest attended tour ever with 4.5 million ticketholders attending 123 shows across 15 countries.

Despite Michael Jackson reaffirming this bold move on several occasions, the singer would soon be swayed into touring again just a few years later with the Dangerous world tour during 1992 to 1993, and then to support his ‘History’ album throughout 1996 and 1997. Subsequent tours covered much of Europe, Asia, Latin America, Oceania and Africa.

Despite countless US tours as part of the Jacksons (1984’s Victory tour taking place exclusively within North America) as well as him touring the states extensively as part of the Bad world tour, Michael Jackson would only ever agree to perform in the states on a handful of occasions thereafter. This included the Superbowl halftime show in 1993, two concerts in Hawaii during the History World Tour and two performances as part of his 30th Anniversary Celebration at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2001. Hence for the last 20 years of Michael Jackson’s life he never toured the United States and never had any plans to.

But the big question is why?

Although Michael Jackson never explicitly addressed the decision, several theories speculated that the US exodus was due to his ability to attract much larger audiences abroad, others stated that Michael Jackson’s mounting legal battles as a key factor, or that by the mid 1990s Michael Jackson had grown tired of the relentless onslaught he was subjected to by the US tabloid press, that he preferred to focus his energies performing in territories that were more welcoming of him, his music and message.

All of which are partially true. But one main factor behind all this is a little thing called… marketing optics.

Back in 1987, the main motivations behind Michael Jackson’s Bad world tour were to promote his much-anticipated album, with high hopes of outselling his previous juggernaut ‘Thriller’, as well as to position Jackson as a generation defining performer and global superstar like no other.

After breaking records selling out countless arenas several times over, causing pandemonium wherever he went and performing at a level even his most cynical of critics couldn’t characterise as anything less than spellbinding, it was an almost impossible act to follow. Especially as in the late 1980s, Michael Jackson was still bathing in the light of ‘Thriller’ and its far-reaching success, with much hysteria attached to what was meant to be his very last concert performances.

In 1991, Michael Jackson signed a new record-breaking contract with Sony Music, a contract agreed on the assumption that he was to maintain his sky-high bankability as their number one selling artist throughout the new decade. However, the white heat of 80s Michael-mania had certainly cooled, and in recent years Michael Jackson had become increasingly a victim of ridicule by the tabloid press. So, the big question for Sony was… how to maintain Jackson’s King of Pop status when there was nowhere else for his popularity to go… but down.

Upon the release of Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ album, the musical milestone was met with widespread cynicism with many doubting Jackson could maintain a similar level of sales he achieved in the previous decade to warrant his exorbitant price tag. As though Michael Jackson had now become a mere commodity to be ranked and traded on the open market.

When on February 3rd, 1992, in a Pepsi press conference, it was announced that Michael Jackson would tour again, the artist stated, “The only reason I am going on tour is to raise funds for the newly formed Heal the World Foundation… My goal is to gross $100,000,000 by Christmas 1993”. Suggesting that the King of Pop’s priority with his next tour wasn’t an attempt to outdo himself, but to switch focus to the philanthropic. For an artist who admired the likes of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa, Jackson was looking to break new ground not as a mere performer, but in his potential influence as a humanitarian and global ambassador outside the US. “I am looking forward to this tour because it will allow me to devote time to visiting children all around the world, as well as spread the message of global love, in the hope that others will be moved to do their share to help heal the world.”

Aside from Michael Jackson’s charitable efforts, he hoped that touring exclusively outside the US would also help alleviate press overexposure. To ease the increasingly destructive image being painted of him in the tabloids and encourage a new wave of more sympathetic commentary around him. With the view that after flexing his commercial muscles and conquering new territories abroad, Michael Jackson could return to pop prominence in the US under less hostile circumstances.

At the same event announcing his upcoming tour, Michael Jackson was also awarded a platinum award by the Chairman & CEO of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola, marking initial sales of 10 million for his ‘Dangerous’ album, released just 3 months earlier. Record sales that more than two-thirds of which came from outside the United States, “a higher percentage of foreign sales than with ‘Bad’ and ‘Thriller’, where sales were split 50/50 between the US and the rest of the world”, as stated by Philip McCarthy in ‘The Age’. Suggesting that instead of attempting to regain the unprecedented popularity he experienced in the States during the 1980s, with this tour Michael Jackson was looking to nurture untapped markets that were emerging further afield.

Whereas in America musical tastes were rapidly evolving, and Michael Jackson was largely considered ‘old hat’, globally, Jackson’s distinctive dose of American showbiz spectacle and untouchable superstardom could easily be repackaged and sold to audiences abroad. Improving perceptions of Jackson’s commercial relevance, as instead of headlines being filled with waning US ticket sales and comparisons to past successes, news outlets could be filled with images of Michael Jackson being mobbed in the streets, fainting fans and Jackson being hosted by foreign dignitaries in far-flung nations. As for many countries his arrival justified a state of national celebration.

When Michael Jackson performed in the newly reformed Romania, immediately after the fall of Communism, Jackson sold the rights to HBO to broadcast the Dangerous show for a cool $20 million, a record-breaking pay-out. “We paid a lot of money for it”, said Betty Bitterman, then Vice President of original programming for HBO, “We’re in the big event business. We’ve been here for a while, and we plan to stay here”. A deal undoubtably bolstered by Michael Jackson’s tour lacking any dates in the United States, as it was the only chance American audiences had to witness the Dangerous tour in its entirety. When the show was broadcast in October 1992, the televised music event set a record for HBO as the highest-rated special in history. Another ground-breaking move for the King of Pop, but this time in the world of cable television.

After claims were made against him of child abuse in 1993 and while preparing for his commercial comeback with the release of his ‘History’ album, Michael Jackson had less of an incentive to tour the States than ever. Having experienced an intensifying media onslaught for the best part of a decade, the allegations only adding to its ferocity, Michael Jackson spoke openly about his desire to leave America and make a new life abroad, with both Switzerland and South Africa both mentioned.

Career wise, Michael Jackson’s record sales continued the international trend, with the ‘History’ album selling below its predictions for the US, but selling strong throughout markets in Europe and Asia, as reported in the National Post in 1996. The publication also noted that “in some respects it makes sense for the marketing effort to concentrate on less mature markets such as Asia and Latin America, since sales growth is so high in them. Music Business International, the industry magazine, predicts that North America’s share of music sales will fall to 28% by 2001 from 34%, while that of Asia (excluding Japan) will rise to 12% from 3%”. The publication mentioned other US stars that had already successfully boosted domestic sales by nurturing emerging markets, notably Bon Jovi, who at this time was touring relentlessly in Asia.

When comparing the attendance as well as gross revenue generated for both his ‘Bad’ and ‘History’ world tours, what becomes evident is that Michael Jackson’s profits were comparable performing less shows but to a higher number of attendees during the ‘History’ tour. Profits that were much needed after the allegations and its financial fall out, Michael Jackson was also paid $17 million to perform at the Sultan of Brunei’s 50th birthday party, with over 60,000 people attending the free concert taking place in a custom-built stadium in July 1996.

When it came to promoting his 2001 comeback record, ‘Invincible’, Michael Jackson was persuaded by producer, David Gest, to perform two nights at Madison Square Garden in New York city as part of a celebration marking the King of Pop’s 30th year as a solo artist. Promoters hoped that the standalone musical extravaganza would reignite Michael Jackson’s passion for live performance, extinguishing any doubts the artist may have had concerning his ability to still sell out arenas. With tickets selling out in less than two hours, many were encouraged for Jackson to return with an American tour. However, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many big-name performers pulled out of touring commitments due to the perceived heightened security risk. When asked directly about the possibility of a tour during an online audio chat in October 2001, Michael Jackson replied “We haven’t thought about it much right now, but I don’t want to say it’s not in the works. We’re concentrating on a lot of different things right now. But I can’t quite say.”