Elvis vs. The Beatles: Nigel eats humble pie!

by Nigel Patterson, 2004

My article 'World Title Fight 2003: Elvis Vs. The Beatles' produced one of the biggest responses we have ever received. Comments were roughly split one third in support and two thirds criticising my views.

With more than 100 responses received I want to thank everyone who took the time to express their views. There were many very well thought out and argued comments and many emotional tirades.

As both Elvis 2nd To None and Let It Be Naked (LIBN) have now enjoyed their primary chart run, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the past few months in the context of my earlier article.

First of all, I happily "eat humble pie" in that Let It Be Naked did not debut at #1 and in fact has been nowhere near the chart and sales success anticipated in Beatles circles.

And didn't many fans make sure I knew it!

Unfortunately they were less inclined to debate me on the other points and facts in my article.

Sales of Elvis 2nd To None and Let It Be Naked As one person commented:

"What it means is that Elvis and The Beatles are passe and only TV promoted compilations of their biggest hits will be successful in today's market".

Yet another suggested much of the material recorded by both Elvis and The Beatles is now "dated".

There is considerable food for thought in these observations. It was interesting that the majority of people criticising me hooked on to the failure of LIBN to debut at #1.

Few people wanted to address the "facts" in my article, preferring to attack the 'person' not the 'arguments'. Several people raised long standing issues with the RIAA and how its figures are compiled. While I have previously acknowledged weaknesses in the RIAA arrangement the central issue in the debate is not the RIAA, but lax record keeping by RCA.

In many respects the RIAA argument is a spurious one, particularly as BMG has successfully found many of the "lost" sales, including tens of millions for the 1956-57 period. Another argument regarding RIAA measurement that effectively doesn't count sales between thresholds is also spurious as it applies to all recording artists.

Yes, Elvis releases number many more than most other artists, but at best this would only account for tens of millions not the hundreds of millions needed to bridge the gulf between claimed sales and accredited sales. And of course for every Elvis album that sold 499,000 more than Gold status (500,000) in the USA, there is another Elvis album that sold only 1,000 beyond that threshold.

Finally on the RIAA issue, a number of fans suggested RIAA statistics exclude various distribution channels used to sell Elvis releases. This is not the case as the following excerpt from the RIAA site indicates:

"An artist's GoldŽ or PlatinumŽ award represents sales through retail, record clubs, rackjobbers, and all other ancillary markets that legitimately distribute music. Once a title's sales has been audited and verified as having reached requisite levels, a formal certification report is issued and sent to the title's record company."

An old chestnut was also raised as part of the commentary, one that has been dusted off periodically since the late 60s. It is the specious argument that we cannot compare Elvis with The Beatles as he was one person and they were four.

Several people suggested this is like comparing apples with oranges. Another, more reasonable way of looking at it is that we are comparing one 'recording artist' with another 'recording artist'.

A number of my critics expressed considerable angst and venom in their missives. While I understand the emotional element in the debate, I cannot accept the attitude of those fans who choose to avoid critically assessing the BMG sales claim in the light of publicly available information.

Sticking one's head in the sand and hoping is a strategy, but is it the best one? What is wrong with questionning the validity of a claim not supported by factual evidence? In legal terms, my argument centers around "burden of proof". Now while BMG is yet to, and quite likely never will be to able to prove the 1 billion figure, this of itself does not mean Elvis hasn't sold 1 billion units. But it does mean there is currently (and has been for a long time) a serious hole in BMG's claim.

Why can't the validity of BMG's claim be examined and questioned? I called this article "Chasing False Echoes" as unfortunately many fans 'blindly' accept the recurring corporate rhetoric about Elvis's sales. My personal view is that the figure is generously inflated and that it makes great copy. BMG's presentation of the plaque to EPE signifying 1 billion sales has no official status with any record sales accrediting agency.

Similarly, if there is an in-house award representing 14 million sales of the album Moody Blue, why isn't this reflected in RIAA data? Only 2 million sales of Moody Blue are accredited by the RIAA. Personally I agree the album would have sold several million more copies in the USA, but again where is the 'unrefutable proof'? I can claim I ran the mile in under 4 minutes, but unless I can prove it, it remains simply my unsubstantiated claim or rhetoric. Formal audit and verification procedures like those used by the RIAA at least give a process some degree of rigor. Rhetoric lacks rigor!

The work of BMG in securing accreditations for historical Elvis releases is to be commended as is the work of people like Bryan Gruszka, Tony Galvin and Brian Quinn in researching "lost sales" and publishing persuasive cases for the quantum involved. While I respect their efforts I do not necessarily agree with all of their findings.

I must briefly mention a tangential issue to my article. It is a sad reality in 2004 that Elvis still lacks a degree of credibility with many music critics and music lovers. This "music-intellectual snobbery against Elvis" was the subject of recent discussion on the Elvis Collectors messageboard:

"Does the music-intellectual snobbery against Elvis, which originated in the [50s], have a deep-seated secularism that dismisses anyone who incorporates Gospel into commercial music?"

But back to World Title Fight 2003. Was there a knock-out punch? Obviously not. What this means is that Elvis, The Beatles, the RIAA, fans and me will undoubtedly continue a lively sparring on a topic that is almost like sport, politics or religion....the truth of our belief is beyond substantive proof.

While I eat 'humble pie' regarding LIBN I stand by the other threshold points and facts in my article.

Postscript: Information has been released about BMG's Elvis releases to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of That's All Right, Mama in 2004. They include the albums 'Elvis Ultimate Gospel' and 'Elvis At Sun'. When will the endless recycling of Elvis product end?

'Christmas Peace' has only been out for a month and a new gospel CD is already slated for March 2004 release! 'Sunrise', an admirable double album of Elvis' Sun material was released three years ago. In my opinion, unless 'Elvis At Sun' includes significant historical material it is not needed and can only further erode credibility of the Elvis catalog both within and outside the Elvis world.

And for fans hoping for new material from 'Elvis On Tour' (EOT) it's not going to happen. The rights to EOT are owned by the Ted Turner organisation and they had their fingers burnt with the lacklustre showing of 'Elvis That's The Way It Is'. They appear to be unwilling, despite coaxing by EPE, to invest the time and money to digitally upgrade a product they consider has limited appeal and sales potential. Of course, had the Turner group put some real promotion behind 'Elvis That's The Way It Is' the story could have been very different.

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