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Elvis' American Record Sales: A Request For Action

By Brian Quinn, December 24, 2000 | Other
In the last issue of Elvis Today an article about Elvis' RIAA certification was included. The author, Brian Quinn, asked us to publish some corrections and an additional reaction by Mike Omansky. Since we already had set up a survey closely related to this subject, we asked the author permission to use the complete article. Especially for ElvisNews.com he compiled a revised version, which you can read below. Thanks Brian!

Elvis' American Record Sales: A Request for Action


In November, 1999 the Recording Industry Association of America announced that the Most Successful Recording Act of the 20th Century in America was The Beatles with 106 million Album sales (Single sales were not taken into account). Garth Brooks was listed as second with 89 million sales and Led Zeppelin third with 82 million. Elvis was listed as fourth with 77 million sales.

The above information is OFFICIALLY correct with regard to USA Album sales (according to the RIAA) but UNOFFICIALLY may be incorrect. How, you may wonder, did this sorry state of affairs come about. In this article I will attempt to give an explanation. At all times when reading this article it must be borne in mind that I am referring to USA SALES ONLY. I would also like to pay tribute to American fan Bryan Gruszka for his tireless work in attempting to rectify misinformation concerning Elvis' record sales with his 'Project Increase'; to Nigel Patterson of the Elvis Information Network, Australia and ElvisNews.com for publicizing the issue. I must also thank Nick Keene and Kelvin M. Wilson for their dedication and help on the subject.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the official certifying body for Gold, Platinum and Diamond record awards in the United States (there is no similar body for certifying sales outside the USA). The RIAA was established in 1952, but did not establish any gold record awards until 1958. Prior to the inception of the RIAA., gold awards were most often awarded 'in house' by record companies to their artists and did not necessarily carry 'official' status. The original award for Hound Dog is such an award, as it was given to Elvis in 1956, two years before the RIAA issued gold awards. The first award given to Elvis by the RIAA was a gold award for the sales of one million units of Hard Headed Woman.

Certification Requirements

As the music industry has changed and expanded over the years, so have requirements for gold and platinum awards. Initially, the popular music market was predominantly a singles-oriented one, with the success of an artist's single releases being considered much more important than album sales. Most artists, including Elvis, were judged in this manner, and their careers were developed accordingly. In line with this thinking, the original requirements for a gold single was one million units sold, and after 1976, for a platinum, two million units. Conversely, albums were awarded gold status for sales of one million dollars based on thirty-three and a third percent of an album's retail price rather than one million units, which was reflective of the lower priority placed on album sales. Thus, for artists in the 1950's and 1960's receiving a 'gold' single (reaching at least one million units in sales) was considered quite a feat. An artist, on the other hand, could have a number of 'million dollar', or gold albums, which, depending on the price of albums at that time, could result in an award being given for less than the one million units given for a gold single.

On January 1st 1975, the requirements for albums changed. Whilst 'single' requirements remained the same, album certification was now based on units sold rather than dollars, with 500,000 units being required for a gold album. This change was brought about by the higher prices for albums, which, according to the million dollar rule, could qualify an album for gold status without selling a specific fixed amount. Additionally, in 1976, a 'platinum' category was added for both album and single sales, again reflecting the increase in the music buying public and the sales of popular music overall. A gold album required 500,000 units to be sold, whereas a platinum album required one million units. These requirements remain the same today. Singles, up until 1991, remained at one million units for gold and two million for platinum, but since have been reduced to 500,000 units for gold and one million for platinum, the same as album requirements. In addition, in 1998, a new Diamond Award for added for album sales of over 10 million units. To date, Elvis does not qualify for any Diamond Awards. The Beatles, however have five with Garth Brooks and Led Zeppelin four each.

The Certification Process

The certification by the RIAA of an artist's record sales is solely up to the artist's record company, whom if they so choose, must submit lists of records that they believe are deserving of awards from the RIAA., who will then independently audit sales accounts to determine if an award is indeed warranted. Once this process is complete, the artist is then awarded with a Gold, Platinum or Diamond Award. The RIAA itself does not initiate any such auditing process, but instead only acts when it is contacted by an artist's label.

In determining level of sales, the RIAA uses the term units, a term which varies based on the medium of the material which it is currently evaluating. For purposes of certification, a 'single' is considered two songs released on the same medium, be it vinyl, cassette or CD. Both the 'A' and 'B' sides of a single are combined to count as one 'unit'. Thus, a single like Hound Dog/Don't Be Cruel, for example, would be considered one unit in terms of certification, making it necessary for 500,000 copies of that single to be sold in order for it to achieve gold record status.

Extended play singles are defined by the RIAA as releases having at least five different songs but fewer songs than a full, or long-form, album. EP's which used to be a staple of the record industry, had declined considerably over the years until rising again in the mid-1990's. EP's currently have the same requirements as singles, with 500,000 units being required for a gold record and one million for a platinum. Prior to the mid-1990's however, EP's were treated differently with 250,000 copies required for a gold record, and 500,000 for a platinum. All of Elvis' EP releases, which were released prior to the 1990's, fall under the old certification requirements.

For long-form albums, or LP's (CD's), each album is considered one unit. However, the RIAA has expanded the certification requirements to include non-traditional outlets, allowing sales of LP's (CD's) (and all other music, for that matter) from military bases, fulfilment houses such as Reader's Digest or Publisher's Clearing Houses, mail order outlets, TV advertisements, and Internet sales to be included along with retail sales. Each sale of an album/CD/cassette from any outlet, and in any form, counts towards certification.

For multi-disc sets, which are defined by the RIAA as containing a minimum of 100 minutes of music, each disc in the set is counted once toward the total sales. Thus, a 4 CD box set like 'Platinum', for example, would require sales of 125,000 copies for gold status (125,000 copies times 4 = 500,000 units = Gold. Each multi-disc set is counted in the same fashion.

The Claims

Since the early eighties, RCA have been quoted as saying that Elvis' World-wide record sales had passed the one billion mark. In 1997, Rudi Gassner, President and CEO of BMG Entertainment, made a speech at Graceland stating that Elvis had sold over one billion records (singles/EP's/albums/CD's/cassettes World-wide and that it was estimated this figure comprised 600 million in the USA alone with 400 million in the rest of the world.

On 9th August, 1999, Mike Omansky, Senior Vice Presid