Brian Quinn


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 and David Troedson 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 President of RCA World-wide marketing and responsible specifically for the Elvis Presley Catalogue, made a presentation in Memphis to Jack Soden for EPE which proved beyond doubt that Elvis was still KING OF RIAA CERTIFICATIONS. As of that date, Elvis had 80 gold album certifications, 43 Platinum album/EP certifications and 19 multi-Platinum Album/EP certifications. Barbra Streisand ranked second among gold album artists with 40 certifications, half of Elvis' total, and The Beatles ranked second among platinum album certification acts, with 33, since then Elvis has been awarded another Gold Album for the Time Life Music release 'Elvis Presley - Gospel Treasury' bringing his golden total to 81. Further, it would appear that at the 9th August Presentation the 'Let's Be Friends' Album was included in the tally as a Gold album by mistake. This has now been deleted by the RIAA. Taking this into account, Elvis' current tally (as of 23rd December, 2000) is 81 Gold Albums/EP's, 43 Platinum Albums/EP's and 19 Multi-Platinum Albums/EP's.

Certification Versus Sales

We now come to the crux of the problem CERTIFICATION VERSUS SALES. I will use The Beatles and Garth Brooks (both Capitol label artists in the USA) as examples with which to explain my case. As can be seen in the first paragraph of this article, Elvis is behind The Beatles and Garth Brooks in total album sales. The reason for this is mainly down to different marketing strategies of the two record labels in question. Since 1965, RCA has followed a strategy of releasing copious amounts of Presley product (with little marketing) and following such release have recycled them in various forms over the years with many compilation albums containing the various tracks e.g. Greatest Hits/Golden Records/Love Songs/Country/Blues/Gospel/Ballads etc., and last but not least the various box-sets and digital re-masters. Capitol Records (EMI) on the other hand have adopted the opposite approach. They have generally stuck to marketing the original albums ONLY with a few exceptions (their latest 'Beatles 1' is such a case). Consequently The Beatles and Garth Brooks (also Led Zeppelin) have issued a relatively small amount of albums (compared with Elvis) with heavy marketing on these titles (see Table 1 below). The effect of this is that The Beatles and Garth Brooks have larger sales on fewer albums whereas Elvis has smaller sales on a greater volume of albums. This system gives The Beatles and Garth Brooks an unfair advantage over Elvis when tallying up RIAA SALES and a distinctive advantage for Elvis when it comes to CERTIFICATIONS, apart from the new Diamond Awards.

TABLE 1 (Albums sold by The Beatles and Garth Brooks in the USA)

1. The Beatles - The Beatles (17 million)
2. The Beatles - The Beatles (1967-70) (14 million)
3. The Beatles - The Beatles (1962-66) (13 million)
4. The Beatles - Abbey Road (11 million)
5. The Beatles - Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (11 million).
The above Albums plus their other album sales total 106 million .

Garth Brooks tally is shown as follows:

1. Garth Brooks - No Fences (16 million)
2. Garth Brooks - Ropin' The Wind (14 million)
3. Garth Brooks - Double 'Live' (12 million)
4. Garth Brooks - The Hits (10 million).
The above Albums plus other album sales total 89 million.

There have been many reasons put forward for the apparent 'low sales' figures for Elvis' Albums in the USA and these are well documented in Tony Galvin's excellent article 'Figure It Out?' in Elvis Monthly No.473 - which should be read in conjunction with this article.

According to the 'Goldmine' Trade Magazine in the USA, Elvis' record database has a listing of some 192 Album releases since 1956 in the USA alone and this does not count already 'certificated' releases. Obviously, the RIAA will not ratify any one album below 500,000 sales i.e. a Gold Album. However, if RCA were to release the sales figures of every one of these 192 albums then Elvis would be credited with millions of extra album sales and thus overtake The Beatles and Garth Brooks in total amount of albums sold. However, until RCA release such information it will obviously not be in the 'public domain'. Once in the public domain, the information cannot be ignored by such publications as 'The Guinness Book of World Records'.

The RCA Explanation

In this connection I decided to write to Mike Omansky and put to him some questions which might shed some light on the subject. He very kindly wrote to me at the end of September, 1999 and I have recorded the questions and answers as follows:

Q. Prior to the Project (Artist of the Century) commencing, and indeed since 1984 in Billboard Magazine, RCA have been claiming that Elvis' Global Record Sales have been an estimated 1 Billion (60% of sales being in the USA and 40% in the rest of the World). The Official Project Booklet states, and I quote, "Unequivocally, Elvis Aaron Presley is the biggest-selling artist in the history of popular music. No contest. Bigger than the Beatles; bigger than Sinatra; bigger than Michael Jackson; bigger than the Spice Girls; bigger than the flavour of the month - much bigger". However, even taking the new certifications into account, the total sales figure for the USA alone is 144 million singles/albums/EP's and well short of the 600 million figure which would be needed to account for the 60% of global sales. In the circumstances, are RCA still claiming the estimated 1 billion global sales figure, and if so, how do you account for the missing 456 million USA sales?

A. RIAA certifications only measure levels of sales of albums, not total sales. Also, many Elvis albums do not qualify by RIAA certification rules to be certified. For example, we found one album sold about 25 years ago that did about 950,000 units, and proved the sales. However, the list price was $2.98; the minimum RIAA level to qualify is $3.00. Thus, those sales don't "count" for RIAA purposes; as far as we're concerned, they sold and do so in real life. Elvis has many more albums, as you note, than other musicians. Many titles that have been certified have units sold well beyond their levels. These are real sales, which again are distinct from what is certified and what is not.

Q. The list of Elvis' USA certifications are indeed impressive and we should all be very proud of them. However, I and several other fans, have recently detected a shift in emphasis by RCA from stating that Elvis is the Biggest Selling artist of all-time to stating he is the Most Certified Artist of all-time. Of course, such certification only applies to the USA as there is no global equivalent of the RIAA. Is it now RCA policy to prefer the Most Certified title to the Biggest Selling title?

A. "Most Certified Artist" was intentional for August. We wanted to beat back claims by a few others who were clinging just to certified units. This has nothing to do with the fact that Elvis is the biggest selling artist of all time. He is both.

Q. How do you account for the lack of Elvis' chart performance in the Billboard Top 200? Is this to do with the lack of money being spent by RCA on advertising Presley product?

A. RCA is selling far more Elvis in the US and world-wide than when I took over in late 1995. I increased ad spending substantially in the right places, and the business results have proven that we made the right moves. The advertising is targeted to more casual buyers - and this has worked well. Until it stops working, we'll stay the course. I am more interested in sales than charts. Elvis sells steadily 52 weeks a year. While it is usually below the chart radar screen, at the end of the day he will sell more units than acts that come on, last a while, and drop off. Also regarding charts, realise that multiple sets only count as 1 unit for the charts. In other words, even though "Artist of the Century" was a 3 CD set/$49.98 list in the US, a sale counts as 'one', as any $16.98 list CD would - not "3". If it counted triple, we would have debuted at No.50, not No.163 (Billboard Top 200 Album Charts), and been on additional weeks.

Q. There has been over 20 Elvis Albums issued in the UK this year. None of them have been in the Top 100. According to 'Goldmine', the respected American Trade Magazine, Elvis has over 192 Albums, apart from those with certifications, that have been issued since 1956 in the USA alone. These albums have not been ratified with the RIAA, either because they have been overlooked or because they have not achieved the minimum amount of sale i.e. 500,000 (Gold Album) to be ratified with the RIAA and therefore bring them within the public domain. If this is the case, would it not make sense for RCA to list the exact amount of sales each Album has sold? Only in this way can you prove that Elvis has sold more albums than The Beatles in the USA. Further, is it not time to stop releasing so much Presley product and concentrate instead on re-issuing original upgraded albums with heavy promotion?

A. We have nothing to prove of our sales versus the Beatles. It's not close. If you or other fans don't like the product we issue, don't buy it. If you take a step back, we are not only trying to serve the core fans (like you), but also a wider audience. Upgrades don't make it in the larger marketplace as well as the releases that have more of a hook for the current audience. I would not invest in "heavy promotion" on albums that not enough people would want in the first place.

Q. Is RCA still committed to proving that Elvis is indeed "The Greatest Record Seller of All Time?

A. Elvis is the largest seller of records of all time; we have nothing to prove. Nonetheless, we are committed to making sure that he is properly certified in the future, as well as continuing to increase his sales and maintain his importance on our roster.

I am sure, like myself, you will find Mike's answers intriguing. Of course, like all answers to questions, they raise more questions that need answering.

The Request for Action

Having dealt with this issue in some depth I personally feel that as a loyal Elvis Fan I owe it to Elvis and his Legacy to continue to 'fight' for what I know is right. If you feel the same way too, and wish Elvis to be credited as 'The Greatest Record Seller of the 20th Century in America then PLEASE write to Mike Omansky requesting that he publish the RCA sales figures for each 'non-certified' Elvis Album released in the USA as, has been stated above, only in this way can we prove that Elvis has 'outsold' The Beatles, Garth Brooks or anyone else - which he surely has.

Your efforts will NOT be in vain. Thank you.

You can write to Mike as follows:

Michael L. Omansky
Senior Vice President Marketing
The RCA Records Label
1540 Broadway
Times Square
New York 10036


As of October 2000, The Beatles Album Total in the USA has risen to (in millions) 151.50. Led Zeppelin is shown second with 100.5. Garth Brooks is third with 100 and Elvis is fifth with 86.5.

A recent letter from Mike Omansky dated 7th December has the following comments of note:

"I'm very pleased with our Elvis sales. In the US, our retail sales are up 94% since I took it over 5 years ago. This doesn't include the huge burst for the 20th anniversary campaign".

"We have expanded into Christian book stores, sold millions of discs through the Time-Life deal, the gift market, and a number of other areas that never had Elvis product before. We have increased marketing spending substantially".

"Releasing singles is a call by individual territories. You may see this happen one day under the right circumstances".

"It would take pages to cover RIAA. Basically, most Elvis albums/singles don't "count" for "overall sales". No international sales count; most domestic haven't. we are putting together somewhat of an explanation on this for the EPE website, and it should be on there in the next few weeks".

"A big Elvis release is planned for the 25th anniversary".