For The Billionth And The Last Time : Frequently Asked Questions

By: Elvis Australia
May 7, 2009

This is a list of Frequently Asked Questions from our article, For The Billionth And The Last Time - Lifting the Lid on the Kings Record Sales by Nick Keene. With answers from Nick.

What is the total number of sales certified by the RIAA to date?

This is currently nearly 170 million from 151 different titles. Albums - including the old extended play vinyl 45's - make up 119 million and singles  make up the rest. There are some doubts about whether this includes the old Stereo 8 track cartridges and some of the early cassettes.

What methods do record companies use to count sales?

Basically record companies will use whatever method they think will show off their artist in the most favourable light and at the same time disadvantage the opposition. For those artists with large album sales like the Beatles the temptation is to use the so called SEM method (Singles Equivalent Method) originally invented by EMI. This works on the basis that as a long playing album normally contains 12 tracks it should therefore count as six times greater than that of a 2 track single whilst the old extended play 'short form' album known as an EP and containing 4 tracks should count as double that of a single. This method ignores the fact that throughout history the price of six singles was always greater than an album and that up until the mid sixties singles were what albums are today. It is simply wrong to say that Bing Crosby who sold 300 million singles but because of the technology of the day virtually no albums should be put on a par with a modern group who sold 40 million albums and only 2 million singles. All artists should be assessed on a level playing field which can only mean straight sales. Actually Elvis is not disadvantaged whatever method is applied but that is not the point. The sales department at Sony occasionally arrives at a sale for some tracks by counting the amount of times a single track has been used on various albums over the years which is fair enough so long as they don't let this influence the overall totals. Unfortunately the publicity department at Sony has misused this information on at least two occasions. There are a number of in house awards which have still not made it to official gold disc status. In the past RCA awarded Elvis a gold disc for both sides of a single if it sold over 2 million copies and an album was credited with a gold disc if it went over the million dollar mark.

What about the allegation made that Elvis' sales have since 1969 if not earlier and especially in 1982 been inflated by the use of the SEM method?

The original claim made by Don Wardell in 1982 that Elvis had sold a billion records has been described to me as making no sense at all and whatever it was based upon it was not the SEM method which whilst disingenuous and misleading is at least logical. More to the point I have a recent statement from Ernst Jorgensen stating that both he and Sony count Elvis' records in terms of singles, EP's and albums and that nobody involved in the 2001 exercise can remember anyone in the company ever mentioning the SEM method. The original book on gold discs was by Joseph Murrells entitled 'The Daily Mail Book of Gold Discs' who subsequently confirmed in writing that The Beatles did indeed use the SEM method but not Elvis.

There are of course many ways of counting and as I said in my article RCA have been guilty of massaging the figures in the past as evidenced by the Wardell episode. It certainly cannot be ruled out that this also happened during the latter part of Elvis' career when some very strange figures were issued by RCA. One of the problems maybe that - as I have mentioned earlier - once the publicity department get hold of the figures from the sales department the temptation to 'inflate' them eventually proves too great.

This looks to have been the case with the daft sales claim made on the back of the sleeve notes on the 'Ultimate Gospel' CD in the case of Elvis' US gospel sales a few years ago.

During Elvis' career RCA proudly issued annual brochures listing his entire back catalogue and more often than not some sales data. Much of the latter was confusing. Figures darted back and forth and the dividing line between world sales and US sales never always made clear and I think that it was in discovering this that some critics found a way to cast doubts about current projections.

Again I drew attention to this in my article and urged caution when examining these figures.

Where are Elvis' International certifications?

Some critics refuse to concede that Elvis was as big a seller outside the USA as I have claimed because his international certifications are not as impressive as those he holds from the RIAA. But then the RIAA was set up as long ago as 1958 and the international certifying body the IFPI did not exist during Elvis' lifetime so the RCA outlets had nowhere to go save to issue in house awards which however they did in vast numbers as anyone who has visited Graceland can testify.

So why hasn't Sony's overseas outlets sought retrospective certification for international sales as they have in the States?

Well for a start the IFPI does not have the same status as the RIAA nor does it cover all the markets around the world or anything like. Secondly the outlets all of whom are pretty independent are not going to spend money attempting to locate ancient sales sheets especially in the middle of a global recession. So the in house awards will have to do. Never at any stage whilst Elvis was alive did the US parent company have a complete picture of his overseas sales. The statement on the EPE website that a 'research is underway to document Elvis' record sales achievement in other countries' is highly questionable.

Can you expand on the sources behind the figures given in your article?

As stated both Ernst Jorgensen and through him Sony helped me out with some of the statistics in my article but in turn I believe that their information actually comes from a varied number of internal sources including Elvis' lifetime royalty sheets, legal documents, Internal Revenue returns, the Colonel's files, Sony's post 1988 spread sheets, old RCA computer files and correspondence relating to sales made through third party outlets. US trade journals such as Billboard have also been an invaluable source of information. Many of these came to my attention through the contributions of other fans too numerous to mention by name.

In addition I have taken into account some press reports for sales in countries made outside the USA. There is clearly a danger is using press reports since some journalists do play fast and loose with facts but in the main these reports are based on information supplied or leaked by the record company itself. Michael Omansky (former Senior Vice President of RCA) who after all has a professional reputation at stake has made several comments on the sales situation over the years such as for example 'the billion claim is safe', 'Elvis is the largest seller of records of all time' and in relation to the Beatles 'we have nothing to prove…it's not even close'.

How do you reconcile the claimed US sales figures of 400 million with the 170 million certified by the RIAA?

For a start Elvis was a prolific recording artist and his record company is - as ever it was - an even more prolific distributor of them! But in terms of certification the sheer number of releases which have been put out over the years by RCA/BMG/Sony works massively to Elvis' disadvantage. For example an RIAA gold disc in most cases starts at 500,000 sales and a platinum disc starts at 1 million. Nothing above, below or in between those levels counts as far as they are concerned.

Thus I calculate only half or less of his US sales are caught by the RIAA. But most of the half that's not certified is still documented and it is not too difficult to estimate with help from the right quarter what's missing. As I keep stressing it's the sales outside the USA that cause by far the most headaches. Astonishingly one researcher - Marc Hendrickx of Belgium - has actually assembled a great many of these over a 20 year period. I'd like to know where he found the room in his home to file all those newspaper cuttings!!

Has Elvis been diddled by his record companies?

Sadly the evidence suggests that like other artists on the label Elvis did not receive all the royalties he was entitled to from Sun Records but that was small beer in the greater scheme of things. He had no professional advice at the time to query what payments he did receive. However it is unfair to allege that RCA were also guilty of withholding royalties. There is no proof that they did so. Hoodwinking either the Colonel or the Internal Revenue Service would have been a risky business for such a prominent company. Not least the songwriting and publishing companies required strict auditing procedures of which the Colonel would undoubtedly have been aware and had knowledge.

In addition all Elvis' royalty returns went through his accountants - a top Memphis firm - who would have been well versed in the ways of the music business-and alive to any anomalies.

Can the one billion sales claim ever be proved beyond reasonable doubt?

Ernst Jorgensen said to me before I started my research that he would not argue with anyone who suggested that Elvis' sales could be anywhere between 800 million and 1.5 billion. However I think that the billion could be proved depending on the quality of the documentation available throughout the world and of course the cost involved. I believe that an independent auditor should be able to produce two lists of sales. One marked 'proven' and the other marked 'unproven' and allow people to draw their own conclusions.

Aren't you just a fan trying to prove your claims by any means you can?

I get asked this occasionally and am amazed that I do. Guilty as charged! I am an Elvis fan! But I am still the guy who blew the whistle on the claim that Elvis had sold one billion records by 1982 so please allow me some credibility. Whether my claims stack up is a judgment for others to make. Some will agree. Some won't. Feedback indicates the vast majority do. One fan has reasonably commented that one billion sales from six billion human beings on planet Earth is hard to fathom. Put that way it is. However since Elvis' sales have been accumulated over a period of over 55 years including two years (1977-1979) which may well by themselves account for one fifth of that total then I think the claim sounds a lot less outlandish.

What are his UK sales?

Good question. Recent efforts by Channel 4 TV to find out singles sales are based on computer estimates not actual sales and only date from 1958. Hints given to me by Sony sources indicate that these are somewhere in excess of 25 million and I think that albums must be about the same especially after the hits of the last few years. All told not quite as much as the Beatles I suspect –it is after all their backyard but he isn't far behind. I don't think Cliff Richard's album sales are comparable. However Queen may better even the Beatles at least in terms of album sales. In 2008 a year when Elvis had no chart entries of any note his back catalogue still sold almost 600,000 copies according to the official industry watchdog. Does anyone realize how amazing that was?

Why have EPE so far failed to publish your article on their website?

I sent the article to the late Todd Morgan (then Creative Director at EPE) in summer 2007 with the blessing and support of Ernst Jorgensen the idea being that it should replace the one on the site written by Ernst and Roger Semon. Although very interested in resolving the sales question Todd never got round to considering the article presumably because of pressure of work. He wanted his colleagues to read it too and to ensure that nothing was going to upset Sony. Todd tragically died in March 2008 and has never been replaced.

What is holding up new RIAA certifications of old releases?

Sony are being tightlipped about this. Although they may have located sales sheets for about 3 million or so they cannot produce all the old RCA shipping documents and after half a century that's not surprising. What they have apparently assembled were the annual returns made by RCA to the Internal Revenue Service and some legal documentation. Now that by any yardstick is just as good yes? Well not for the RIAA.

Since in many cases these returns can be crossed checked against Elvis' lifetime royalty sheets what more proof is needed? You tell me. Something will give on this front eventually but it may take a change of personnel at the RIAA before that happens.


Articles about Elvis Presley More articles by Nick Keene

Articles about Elvis Presley For The Billionth And The Last Time - Lifting the Lid on the Kings Record Sales

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Elvis Presley Album and Singles Charts Australia Elvis Presley: Australian Album Chart

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