Is Elvis the Biggest Selling Recording Artist? - Sorting Out Records Sales Stats & RIAA Rules

EIN Spotlight by Roger Semon and Ernst Jorgensen

We get tons of inquiries about Elvis' record sales - his total sales, his total RIAA gold/platinum certifications, comparisons of Elvis to other artists, etc. Much of it expresses frustration with how the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certifies sales.

Here RCA/BMG help explain with the following article. For some it will help clear up a few things.

For others it will just make things more confusing. Bottom line: Elvis is indeed the greatest selling recording artist of all time.

Below Roger Semon and Ernst Jorgensen and BGM's Mike Omansky try and explain...

Article figures correct for 2001 -

From EPE:

We get tons of inquiries about Elvis' record sales - his total sales, his total RIAA gold/platinum certifications, comparisons of Elvis to other artists, etc. Much of it expresses frustration with how the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certifies sales, how their rules have changed through the years and how Elvis never seems to get his just recognition.

Elvis' record label, RCA Records, (owned by BMG) and all of us at Graceland/EPE completely understand and share the Elvis fans' frustration. In the Elvisology/Frequently Asked Questions area of our site is our explanation of Elvis record sales figures . As exhaustive as we tried to be, it still doesn't quite cover it. We asked RCA/BMG to help us explain this further and offered them an opportunity to vent their own frustrations. They responded enthusiastically and have provided the following article. For some it will help clear up a few things.

For others it will just make things more confusing. For all it will fuel our frustration. But, this combined with what is already posted on our site should make for as comprehensive an explanation as feasible. The conufusion and the slights might never get fully resolved - they're likely to get worse as the industry and its standards and technologies change. But, bottom line: Elvis is indeed the greatest selling recording artist of all time. We thank Roger Semon and Ernst Jorgensen for their great and enlightening effort and Mike Omansky for his input and support.

The greatest recording artist of all time? It’s Elvis, or maybe The Beatles. Or is it Garth Brooks? Some might also argue that the achievement of Michael Jackson and The Eagles with their ever-growing 20+ million certifications for their respective albums Thriller and Greatest Hits, are the true best-selling artists. The continuous media hype rages on each year as new methods of calculating sales converge with ever-changing consumer buying patterns and new technologies.

Each artist’s core fan base has their own way of calculating sales, as does the RIAA and its supportive record companies. The motive is clear - to further each individual’s own interest, regardless of historical accuracy and the grand perspective of it all. However, for any one individual, company or institution to be preoccupied with sales achievement alone detracts from one of the most enjoyable elements of music – the listening.

The success and individuality of all popular recordings artists from any genre should be appreciated as it keeps music moving forward. Most artists are more graceful than their followers when it comes to artistic competition. Elvis definitely advocated, “there’s room for everybody.”

Garth Brooks has recently been quoted: “… I'm never going to be on the Beatles' [level] in my mind. If I am to someone else out there, thank you, that's flattering, but I'll never believe it. And the RIAA was sweet to give us the largest -selling solo act in history, but I think we all know it's Elvis. It's just the method of counting wasn't as certifiable then as it is now. So it's cool and everything, but at the same time, please know I am seeing it with a very real look.”

John Lennon once stated, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

With this in mind it’s possible to have fun arguing the case for your favorite artist, while endeavouring to understand the merits of other performers. What has caused the most grievance amongst Elvis fans in recent times, are the various announcements regarding Garth Brooks and the Beatles as being “best selling solo artist of all time” and “ all time best selling artist.”

As passionate producers of Elvis re-issues for more than a decade, we are not afraid of opposing RIAA president Hilary Rosen for her statement about Garth Brooks. If Rosen is not aware of the inaccuracy of her statement, then at least people in her organization should be. RCA has on numerous occasions laid before the RIAA the Elvis sales figures it has available – and it’s crystal clear that RCA can prove higher sales than Garth Brooks quoted sales of 100 million.

However Hilary Rosen is absolutely right when she has Garth topping the lists according to the accepted rules of RIAA certifications. The RIAA has agreed with the record companies on the procedure regarding this and they in return accepted that the RIAA is the impartial judge of all matters regarding certifications.

So why do Elvis' achievements look less than Beatles, Brooks and Led Zeppelin? Information about accounting methods:

1. The basis for RIAA’s overall artist announcements totally exclude singles of which Elvis is the true king. When Elvis changed the sales standards of pop music, singles were the normal product. In 1956 Elvis first album sold 300,000 thousand copies and his single of Hound Dog and Don't Be Cruel sold more than 3 million in comparison.

2. The ongoing modifications that the RIAA has made to adjust to new sales conditions and trends, include a number of different pricing parameters, that eliminate or reduce a substantial number of Elvis sales – including the dismissal of more than 1 million units of Elvis' Christmas Album from 1970.

The Beatles and Garth Brooks have not been affected in the same way. Likewise double albums count as one or two certifiable units depending on playing time. This again hurts Elvis, as the limit is 100 minutes, and a double album in the days of vinyl records could not hold 100 minutes with sacrificing the sound. This means that classic Presley albums like Aloha from Hawaii and Elvis in Concert only count as single albums.

3. The RIAA certifications are based on documented sales figures and in the case of older artists these figures simply do not exist any more. In the case of Elvis the RCA figures are incomplete, most importantly sales during the 12 months after Elvis' death are unaccounted for.

BILLBOARD wrote in September 1977 that RCA shipped 20 million records a week. They had as many as 40 pressing plants working overtime to cope with the demand. RCA November releases were postponed, in order to supply Elvis product and at one time during the period more than 1/3 of all sales in the country market was Elvis Presley product. On top of this tens of millions of records sold through outside companies including record clubs, are mainly unaccounted for in RIAA totals.

4. The RIAA certifies U.S. sales whereas Elvis Presley is a truly international artist. The RIAA does not count any sales of any artist outside the U.S.A. As an example It's Now Or Never sold 1.2 million in England alone, as much as it did in the US. Elvis’ combined international sales of over 400 million units are a unique achievement. (It is estimated that Elvis has sold over 600 million units in the USA and over 400 million units in all other countries combined for a total of over one billion units sold worldwide.)

5. Math for Music Lovers – The Summary Current RIAA album certification count: Elvis Presley 86.5 Garth Brooks 100 The Beatles 150. The RIAA counts only certifiable round numbers: 500,000 for GOLD and full millions for platinum and multiple platinum. This means that the 1,012,088 sales of Elvis NBC TV Special counts as much as the 1,922,601 of You'll Never Walk Alone: one million RIAA Sales - i.e. 922,601 of the latter are not counted.

You might argue that these conditions are the same for all artists, which indeed they are, but because of the ever changing ways of releasing music over the past decades, the consequences are quite remarkable in that the more albums you have released, the more sales you lose by being under and in between levels.

Garth Brooks reached his figures with only 12 releases, which means he could ONLY have 12 x 999,999 lost sales, where as Beatles has 36 platinum albums and a theoretical loss three times as high as Garth Brooks.

The staggering number of Elvis albums released over the past 45 years means that his “lost” sales by RIAA accounting are astronomic compared to his main competitors. For the purpose of this exercise, if we average the numbers and say all artists will be credited 500,000 extra sales for records between the various platinum levels, the figures look like this based on the artists current number of certified albums:

Elvis 43 Platinum x 500,000 = 21.5 mil. New Total: 109

Beatles 36 Platinum x 500,000 = 18.0 mil. New Total: 168

Garth 12 Platinum x 500,000 6.0 mil. New Total: 106

If we take that one step further and add 250,000 units as an average on all Gold albums(half of the difference between 500,000 and 999.,999, we find that The Beatles and Garth Brooks have only albums that have platinum status and therefore get no additional figures:

Elvis 38 Gold x 250,000 = 9.5 mil. New Total: 118.5

Beatles 0 Gold = 0 New Total: 168

Garth Brooks 0 Gold = 0 New Total: 106

If we go one step further and award the average 250,000 to albums that haven’t reached gold status, it becomes VERY interesting because neither The Beatles nor Garth Brooks have any albums that have not been certified. Elvis, however, has more than 200 non-certified.

Elvis 220 Uncertified = 55 New Total: 173.5

Beatles 0 Uncertified = 0 New Total: 168

Garth Brooks 0 Uncertified = 0 New Total: 106

After this exercise we need to go back and add the many Elvis albums that were released by other companies through special license arrangements with RCA. None of these sales are accounted for in RIAA totals.

In 1978 Brooklandville Marketing announced sales of over 2 million sets of the double album they had licensed from RCA, and in general these heavily marketed albums sold very large numbers. Then we should add the missing RCA numbers sold in the 12 months after his death and the 81 million singles we can document, the RIAA statement reaches the absolute absurdity.

A different angle to all of this, that keeps getting ignored is that it’s so much easier to achieve high sales figures in today’s mass consumption market, than it was back in the ‘50s. When Elvis’ first album Elvis Presley sold 300,000 in the spring of 1956 – it set a new record for a popular album – and it was the album of that year.

Today, the best selling album of the year, as well as several runners-up, will easily sell over 10 million copies in the US alone – the Beatles 1 sold a million in just one week this past Christmas.

Does this mean that the Beatles are at the height of their career? – No, it means music as a mass consumer product has reached new sales heights*.

In 1956 sales of long-playing records were marginal and priced beyond the financial means of many. In 2001, you could see people buy as many as 5-10 CDs at one time. Elvis achieved incredible sales in the ‘50s before the LP was an established commercial art form. His recordings were released over and over again on numerous singles, EPs, albums and CDs. So whereas the controlled release policy of The Beatles repertoire worked fine towards RIAA certifications, Elvis’ classic songs were spread over as many as 30 or 40 releases.

To give you an example, Elvis’ version of Blue Christmas has combined documented sales figures of over 20 million copies and it’s by no means one of his biggest recordings. The future may require completely different ways of measuring sales, when downloading of individual recordings will be an accepted way of selling music. This again would mean for the RIAA to change their certification criteria and suddenly the sales figures of individual cuts may be the way to judge an artist’s success.

CONCLUSIONS To summarize, no statistics should ever make us feel different about Elvis or any other artist. We don’t judge Chopin, Charlie Parker or Bob Dylan by their sales figures. We ask of the RIAA to be more factual and accurate with their press releases.

Garth Brooks is not the best selling solo artist of all time, but he is the highest certified album artist in the US, according to the rules of the RIAA and his achievement should be congratulated. Only a fraction of Elvis Presley’s sales are captured by the RIAA but in spite of all Elvis is still their most certified artist! As consultants to RCA Records we are 100% convinced that Elvis is the biggest selling artist of all time - we hope you are, too!

- Roger Semon & Ernst Mikael Jørgensen, 2001

* EIN Comment: The argument is correct, but implicitly there is a larger consumer base to support the increased sales. In this context, sales of Elvis albums are still not competing with sales for the Beatles or Garth Brooks! While there are a lot more record buyers today the increase in buyer numbers has translated itself to the Beatles and Garth Brooks, but not Elvis!

Comment on this article

Breaking down Presley and Beatlemania:

In a very stimulating commentary, likethebike presents his case for Presleymania and Beatlemania.

EIN recommends this very thoughtful and cogent commentary to all readers.

With themes including sexual tension, civil rights, backlash by society's cultural arbiters, r&b integration and realising the American dream.......this is a powerful exposition!

(Source: likethebike)

Read EIN's set of articles on "Elvis' record sales" and "Elvis vs. The Beatles":

500,000,000 fans can't be wrong, or can they?: Tony Galvin enters the debate on Elvis' alleged record sales with a spirited, well researched and argued case. If you are at all interested in how many records and CDs Elvis has sold don't miss this great article that adds real value to our discussions. (Source: Tony Galvin, November 2004)

John Lennon And Elvis - 2010 - On December 8th 1980 John Lennon was shot dead outside his New York apartment. Robert Hilburn remembers discussions with John Lennon about life and Elvis...

'Elvis Meets The Beatles' 2010

Larry Geller talks about Elvis and The Beatles meet-up in 1965

Elvis artefact on display in Liverpool Beatles Exhibition 2010: 

Breaking down Presley and Beatlemania (2007)

Why can't Elvis compete...against the Beatles and Garth Brooks? (2007)

Ernst & Roger's persuasive argument for Elvis

Controversial university study incenses Elvis fans (published 2006)

Elvis vs. The Beatles - The Matrix Argument (2006)

Paul McCartney talks about Heartbreak Hotel (2005)

Was there anything before Elvis? (2005)

Elvis vs. The Beatles - Nigel eats humble pie (2004)

Elvis vs The Beatles (Part 1) (2004)

World Title Fight - Elvis vs. The Beatles (2002)

Elvis or Beatles?

Elvis Lacks Credibility


Ernst Jorgensen interview about 'On Stage' and Elvis' Legacy in 2010:

Ernst Jørgensen talks exclusively with EIN about 'From Elvis In Memphis'

Ernst Jorgensen in 2007 talks about the future SUN project

Roger Semon 2007 Exclusive interview with EIN about FTD & future projects

Ken Sharp's 2006 in-depth interview with Ernst Jorgensen

Ernst's 2006 interview about the 'Easter Special' FTD

Ernst's interview about the 'Southern Nights' FTD

Ernst's interview about the 'Summer Festival' FTD

Ernst Jorgensen & Roger Semon's 2002 discussion about the FTD label and their future releases. An EIN exclusive.

Go here for the Ernst Jorgensen in-depth 2002 interview by Arjan Deelen EIN exclusive.

'Elvis Meets The Beatles': An EIN spotlight on this famous night in 1965 when the Fab Four finally met the King. In 1965 The Beatles manager Brian Epstein initiated contact with Colonel Parker, and the decision was made that on the night of August 27, the Beatles would come to Elvis’ home for an informal get-together. Intensive security arrangements were worked out, and it was agreed that no press would be involved and no pictures would be taken or recordings made of whatever happened.

"So many things could have gone wrong," says Jerry Schilling, "If Colonel and Brian hadn’t gotten along, it wouldn’t have gotten past the phone-call stage. But there were no ego battles, and from the start it was approached as a pair of music greats coming together out of admiration for each other."

Piers Beagley and LA writer Chuck Crisafulli tell the story of this amazing night.

(Spotlight, Source;EIN)










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