"If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; If you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."

(George Klein)






WorldTitle Fight 2003: "Elvis vs The Beatles"

At Stake: the Title of Undisputed World Champion of Accredited Sales

Principal Tactical Devices: 'Elvis 2nd To None' and 'Let It Be Naked' RIAA

Progress Score: The Beatles 165 million units; Elvis 103 million units

Betting: 'Elvis 2nd To None' - 3 million sales worldwide; 'Let It Be Naked' - 10 million sales worldwide and another #1 Hit for The Beatles

Predicted Winner: The Beatles (furthering their already enormous lead over The King!)

"I think this is the biggest accolade you can be given because it means your fans have gone out and bought your records. And that's why we make records - for our public." Sir Elton John at the launch of the RIAAŽ DiamondŽ Award, 16 March 1999

In the past few years EIN has published a series of articles ('Elvis Lacks Credibility' and 'Elvis vs The Beatles') that provoked a strong, largely negative response from readers. With discussion now centering around the relative failure of the 'Rubberneckin' single and (to many) the comparatively poor performance of 'Elvis 2nd To None', we thought it was time to fuel the debate.

As with our earlier articles we expect to receive a considerable degree of 'negative' response. In our defence we hope that most readers will understand that we are Elvis fans, but Elvis fans who refuse to uncritically accept unverifiable rhetoric on Elvis' sales.

A lot has been written about the relative sales failure of 'Elvis 2nd To None' compared to 'Elvis 30 #1 Hits'. As a follow-up release it was never expected that '2nd To None' would repeat the global sales success of '30 #1 Hits', which has, to date, sold almost 10 million units worldwide. And let's acknowledge, this is a fantastic achievement!

There is however another issue. Both BMG and EPE maintain a public dialogue about Elvis' position as the biggest seller of records and CDs in the world with claimed sales exceeding 1 billion units. Taking the USA as a case in point, it is well documented that official RIAA certifications (albums, EPs and singles) account for around only 200 million sales, ie. only one third of the claimed 600 million US sales cited by BMG.

Various arguments have been put forward to account for the "missing" 400 million sales including:

  • the price of some budget albums being under the RIAA certification threshold;
  • pre RIAA period sales (the RIAA was formed in 1958);
  • missing sales figures post RIAA implementation (RCA's fault, not BMG's); and
  • unaccounted for sales above one certification threshold but below the next threshold.

Food for thought: Elvis is currently ranked as the #4 all-time album seller in the US with 103 million units accredited. The Beatles are #1 (164.5 million), Led Zeppelin #2 (106 million) and Garth Brooks #3 (105 million). The Eagles round out the top 5 with 86 million units.

Elvis could well overtake both Garth Brooks and Led Zeppelin in the next few years. However, if Garth Brooks releases another major album it is likely to sell 5 to 10 million copies and Elvis will then be way behind! The release of 'Let It Be Naked' this week will see The Beatles stretch their lead in the #1 spot.

In EIN's view these arguments are certainly valid but fail to prove the missing sales to the extent required. They are supposition rather than provable fact. They also require that you apply the essentials of the argument to most if not all releases. This is not a reasonable thing to do as it assumes a consistency unlikely to be the real case.

Our view is influenced by evidence published in 'Elvis Day By Day' by Peter Guarlnick & Ernst Jorgensen. In 'Day By Day', the authors provide sales figures for Elvis singles and albums from 1956 to 1977. Examining these figures it is obvious that, in many instances, Elvis' sales were nowhere near as big as has been claimed (carefully consider the following with BMG's more recent statement on Elvis' sales slump requiring a new marketing strategy).

A few examples: In his liner notes for 'Elvis 2nd To None', Ernst Jorgensen stated: "...2002 proved that the music of Elvis Presley is as alive today as it has ever been."

Nice rhetoric, but flawed when we consider BMGs earlier public statement that in recent years Elvis' sales had slumped dramatically and a new marketing strategy was needed. 2002 was a special year but Elvis' success can be attributed to three factors that together formed a powerful symbiosis:

  • the phenomenal success of 'Elvis vs JXL', fuelled by huge global promotion with its inclusion in the Nike ad for the Soccer 'World Cup';
  • BMG's biggest ever Elvis marketing campaign for 'Elvis 30 #1 Hits'; and
  • the use of Elvis music and an Elvis sub-plot in the Disney movie, Lilo & Stitch.

Elvis' music being as alive today as ever is also a clever way of expressing where Elvis stands as a recording artist. If we take a slightly different perspective or interpretation, one could argue that logically it follows his sales should mirror those of "today's" biggest selling artists on a consistent basis. Unfortunately this is not the case.

New albums from The Beatles and Garth Brooks will routinely sell at least 5 million units in the US. The Beatles '1' album sold around 23 million units worldwide compared to 9 million+ for 'Elvis 30 #1 Hits'. In the US The Beatles '1' is certified Px8 while '30 #1 Hits' is only 3xP. A recent 'flavour of the month' artist, Norah Jones, is also 8xP with her album 'Come Away With Me'.

To date, Elvis' biggest selling album in the US is the "budget priced" Camden album, 'Elvis' Christmas Album' with 8 million units accredited. Along side that release at 8xP are two albums from The Beatles: '1' and 'The Beatles Anthology Vol. 1'. Let's take a quick look at other USA album sales figures:

Some of the Biggest Selling Albums (in the USA) of All-Time:

28 million: The Eagles: Their Greatest Hits

26 million: Michael Jackson, Thriller

22 million: Led Zeppelin IV

19 million: The Beatles

16 million: The Beatles 1967-1970

16 million: Garth Brooks, No Fences

15 million: The Beatles 1962-1966

15 million: Garth Brooks, Double Live

What these examples suggest is that while Elvis is a popular seller TODAY he is not in the same league as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Garth Brooks as a seller of albums. That is, his appeal is usually limited in the broad CD buying market.

EIN poses three questions:

1. Why did at least 8 million Americans buy the most recent albums from The Beatles and Garth Brooks, but only 3 million bought Elvis 30 #1 Hits?;

2. Should we accept that Elvis album sales will not consistently rival those of the major album artists?; and

3. Where are all the Elvis fans?

If we look broadly across all RIAA certifications it would be reasonable to assume that based on RIAA figures Elvis is on a sales level similar to The Beach Boys (recently two of their albums, 'Endless Summer' and 'Made in the USA' were certified 3xP and 2xP respectively). Even Billy Joel recently had his album, The Stranger' certified 10xP (Diamond status) by the RIAA, a level never achieved by Elvis. The Beatles, Garth Brooks and Michael Jackson all have numerous album titles with certifications well above 10xP!

As noted earlier, Elvis' best is the Camden budget Christmas album with sales exceeding 8xP. One aspect of the possible answer to why less people buy an Elvis album compared to a Beatles album is the different marketing strategy adopted by BMG.

New releases for The Beatles and Garth Brooks are well spaced, usually with no more than one relase every 1 to 2 years. But look at the Elvis marketing strategy: in 2003 we have had the Close-Up boxset, a deluxe edition of Elvis 30 #1 Hits, Christmas Peace and Elvis 2nd To None. And this doesn't take into account the myriad of special releases licensed by BMG through various retailers.

Also, BMG insists on "repackaging" Elvis' greatest hits, Elvis' greatest love songs, Elvis sings Country etc. How many greatest hits compilations does a fan need? BMG's marketing strategy for Elvis relies on the ageing hard core fans.

Consider the following excerpt from a news article:

"Meantime, the most posthumously prolific artist of all time, Presley, will deliver at least three releases this year, one of them a four- disc treasure trove of previously unavailable material from old films, Nashville studio sessions and a 1972 concert. Despite the fact that Presley has released about two discs each year - some with new material, some merely repackaging old songs - there's no danger of oversaturating the market, says Michael Omansky, the consultant who oversees RCA's Presley catalog.

"Not as long as you have a hard-core fan base that wants the stuff," Omansky says. "I think as long as you handle the entertainer with class and make sure everything is done right, with no cheesiness and good value for the consumer, you're OK." It's possible that even the tackiest tribute is better than no tribute. Richman notes that many film stars of the 1920s are unknown today. "Families try and keep the memory alive," he says. "But most of these people, they do eventually die, believe it or not."

Elvis Himself & His Fans Partly To Blame: Tangential to this, the marketing of Elvis is partly Elvis' own fault. His ability to sing just about any genre of music (rockabilly, rock & roll, country, pop, ballads, blues, soul, gospel, latino and semi-operatic) fuels the endless repackaging of eclectic greatest hits, country, love songs et al releases. Hence, an Elvis Christmas Album will do well at the festive season, an Elvis gospel album appeals to a niche market etc.

Elvis' musical strength is also his marketing weakness! Also, enough fans continue to buy the endless BMG "repackages" of Elvis' recordings to generate a healthy (if at times wobbly) profit for the company. So why should they change tactics? EIN believes that together with The Beatles, Elvis is the biggest seller of records and CDs in the world. However, we are concerned that the "rhetoric" of 1 billion sales cannot be substantiated and that in the face of ongoing corporate "smoke and mirrors", Elvis' sales are still significantly below that of new releases for The Beatles, Garth Brooks etc. How many units will the upcoming special edition of 'Let It Be' sell?

EIN reasonably predicts that unlike the mediocre sales of the remastered 'Elvis That's The Way It Is' and 'Suspicious Minds' album releases, the new Beatles album will sell more than 10 million units globally! Some people will argue that sales is only one factor that should be considered (the argument is analagous to the one we have about the merits of the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart, a chart heavily biased to airplay rather than sales). And while there is some truth to this, the reality is actual sales are the one 'hard' measure we can refer to in measuring relative popularity. When people part with hard earned money to buy something they want, it says something important about their psychological and emotional attachment to the purchase.

Comments on the various Elvis messageboards about initial sales for Elvis 2nd To None were a mix of disappointment and praise that after 26 years Elvis has two Platinum albums in 12 months. Yes, this is a great achievement but it ignores the above points. Food for thought: on the Elvis Collectors messageboard recently, a posting mentioned that it was a "pretty impressive" achievement for Elvis to register two top 10 hit albums 26 years after he died. Perhaps, but doesn't this miss a bigger point, ie.: The Beatles haven't recorded for more than 30 years but they still regularly hit #1 on album charts worldwide and sell huge numbers!!! Rationalisations to support Elvis' smaller number of sales are a nice sentiment but avoid the bigger issue.

The Keys to Bringing Elvis to the Contemporary Market - Rationalisation of product and strategic "focus"

EIN considers that BMG should "take time out" from milking the Elvis product through the release of numerous profitable albums, but ones that, on average, hardly register on the important charts nor sell in substantial numbers. It will take years, but given the seminal nature and importance of Elvis' music it should be possible to strategically market his appeal to a "regular" buying public of not one million but five to ten million. The key to bringing Elvis to a younger audience is not by marketing his greatest hits. The music scene has evolved considerably since the 1950s & 1960s and generally speaking Elvis' greatest hits packages appeal to an older demographic who grew up on his eclectic, evolving style. Today's core album buyers don't want an album full of eclectic recordings. They want consistency of feel.

BMG needs to identify the key genres of Elvis' musical output that will apeal to today's buying public and strategically market accordingly. Arguably, Elvis' Memphis sessions in 1969 with their heady mix of country soul and fresh pop could be exploited as could his often overlooked rhythm and country soul recordings in the Stax Studios in 1973.

As an example, I came across this great artwork and excellent track listing for a "dummy" BMG Elvis album on the Elvis Collectors messageboard: For this approach to work, fans and the general public need a long break from that material and a "rationed" Elvis release schedule! Part of this also requires that BMG significantly reduce their "over marketing" of albums to the hard-core of fans who will but each and every variation of the Rubberneckin' single or 2nd To None album.

It requires effort to develop and market all these variation products, an effort that is then 'not available' for directing at a strategic, long term strategy. BMG must stringently "focus" its efforts on the long term, not the short term.

Profit versus artistic credibility and public acceptance? EIN wonders which way BMG will go?

Click for follow-up article: 'Nigel eats humble pie!"

Elvis vs. The Beatles - The Matrix Argument

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