How many records has Elvis actually sold? Did he really sell One Billion records as has been claimed. Nick Keene has researched this subject in depth with help from Ernst Jorgensen at Sony BMG and has compiled the following report.
Some might say spin and hype did not start with politics, but in the entertainment world way back at the time of the Roman circuses. And nowhere will you find the air more thick with spin or hype than in the record industry. It seems that pretty well everybody in the business exaggerates the achievements of their clients perhaps because they assume that everyone else is doing the same. Bing Crosby's disc sales were once upon a time estimated by his record company on the basis of a somewhat quirky analysis of his sheet music sales and those of the Beatles were for years inflated on the rather spurious grounds that the sale of each one of their albums should be considered as equivalent to six singles. It is, however, going to come as rather a shock when fans begin to realise that the Presley figures have also not been immune to the odd spot of massaging over the years. Elvis did not sell 1 billion records by 1982 which claim first appeared via an article in the 'Washington Post' dated 12 July of that year and quoted RCA as its source, nor is there any validity in the current claim of 1.5 billion – whatever RCA/BMG may say in the liner notes on the back of one or two recent DVD releases. Rest assured my investigations reveal that Elvis is still by a distance the greatest record seller of all time, but even some 25 years later it is no easy task trying to establish whether or not his sales have actually exceeded one billion copies.
So what happened? Well it seems that around five years after Elvis died a former Radio Luxembourg DJ by the name of Don Wardell took over from Joan Deary as the product manager in charge of the Elvis catalogue at RCA. And it was during his watch that the 'Washington Post' claim first began to appear on the back of Elvis albums and in press releases. Somebody else in the old RCA backroom may have initially dreamt up the figures, but it was Don Wardell who publicised them and thus must bear the responsibility. When some time later after BMG took over RCA the new team tried and failed to elicit any kind of rational explanation from Don Wardell it swiftly became apparent to them that he hadn’t got one. Unfortunately it would appear that those in the company who knew this to be the case kept quiet, presumably because they felt stuck with a claim that over the years had come to be largely accepted by much of the media and regarded as beyond dispute by the fans. Inexplicably, about a year or so ago one or two folk in BMG probably in the publicity department proceeded to take this discredited claim a stage further – which strikes me as a patently senseless and daft approach to take since if there is one artist whose achievements require little hype it surely has to be Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley 1969
So how many records has Elvis actually sold? The truth is that nobody really knows or will ever know, because whilst it is possible, as I will demonstrate, to establish his likely American sales within what I deem to be an acceptable margin of error, Presley's international sales-like those of many other if not all artists- are much more difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless it is certainly possible to put forward a broad based estimate once a figure for his domestic sales has been determined. The previous 'finger in the wind' guesses by persons unknown in his record company to the effect that Elvis' US sales accounted for about 60% of the total are simply not borne out by the market evidence nor for that matter by the wealth of gold or silver disc awards from other countries which Elvis himself had hung up on the walls of Graceland during his lifetime. In 1973 RCA actually put his US sales even higher - 200 out of the then claimed 300 million or so - when attempting to work out where they should pitch their initial offer in an effort to buy out future Elvis royalties accrued through his back catalogue, but it has now emerged that they did not know what royalties Elvis was receiving from overseas outlets in the first place so they simply came up with a back of the envelope estimate. It seems that each of the RCA affiliated outlets overseas mailed their royalty cheques directly to Elvis but did not send copy correspondence to HQ. Such limited information as has come my way from a few utterances which have been made over the years by one or other of Elvis Presley's many songwriters would indicate that they have received the majority of their royalties from overseas, but in saying that no assessment relying on a couple of quotes is remotely tenable. So any researcher must look elsewhere for clues and ferret out such evidence as exists circumstantial or otherwise.
Elvis Presley 1970s
There is for a start no question that the American share of the global market declined several decades ago, when other countries as far apart as Brazil and Japan embraced Western music and culture and this is clearly demonstrated by the total global musical sales for the year 2005, which with figures cast in billions of dollars reads as follows:
1 USA 7.0
2 Japan 3.7
3 UK 2.2
4 Germany 1.4
5 France 1.2
The rest 5.3
Total USA share of market 33.7%
Rest of the World 66.3%.
It doesn't come much more conclusive than that. So the question then turns on whether Elvis' sales conformed to this pattern.
In fact whilst a fifties classic such as 'Hound Dog' may well have initially sold twice as many copies in the States, as it did elsewhere-which as only the Americans had developed a consumer based society by that stage should hardly come as a surprise - it is plain from what we do know that subsequently up to70% of the sales of later singles were sold overseas. In Europe alone virtually all the big Presley hits from 'It's Now or Never' onwards more than matched US sales. Indeed the 1974/5 single 'My Boy' actually sold more copies in the UK than it did in the States.
ELV1S 30 #1 Hits
More recent and better documented data adds even more grist to the mill and demonstrates that the picture with Presley records was and is indeed very much in keeping with market trends. Sales of the 2002 album 30 Number One Hits have now topped the 15 million mark - with a good 11 million of those sold outside the States and the 2003 release 2nd to None has sold three copies overseas for each one sold in the USA - where it has long since gone platinum. In addition the majority of current single sales by any artist in the US, whilst still of symbolic importance, are negligible outside of those purchased for jukeboxes, but Elvis has continued to chalk up new sales elsewhere-over 1.4 million in the UK alone between June 2002 and June 2005.
Twenty five years ago RCA were saying much the same thing. The last album released during his lifetime 'Moody Blue' was by 1982 thought to be one of the King’s top sellers with global sales in excess of 12 million copies. However once US exports to Canada are excluded it seems that less than 3 million of those were actually sold to the home market. And as a final example on its initial release back in 1970 the single 'The Wonder of You' sold 990,000 copies in the USA and some 2,200,000 overseas. The exception to this picture is Presley's gospel music which continues to find particular favour with the strong Christian movement in the States and has no parallel elsewhere.
Domestically the indications are that Elvis has sold just over 400 million records of which interestingly perhaps only 20% (82 million) can be attributed to singles:
Summary Of American Sales OF 1954-2007
Documented / Estimated Sales (Millions)
RIAA certified sales 169.0
Sales currently awaiting RIAA certification 8.0
Sales above/between certification levels * 57.5
Sales below minimum certification le