Understanding: RIAA / Label audits – The case of Michael Jackson

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X) Years 2016-2017

For the second time, the main news isn’t related to the superstar from Indiana but to a change of rules by the RIAA. I myself covered this fundamental update, with the inclusion of streaming and singles downloads into the album’s certifications from February 1, 2016.

Labels were given the choice to assign sales and streams of songs on the package they wanted. For example, sales of Billie Jean could have been assigned to Thriller, to Number Ones or to The Essential etc… you get the idea. Epic hasn’t thought twice and from the first day of the rule change Thriller was updated.


Up to that date, the 9 Thriller tracks had been downloaded the incredible combined total of 13 million times in the US. The title track alone was over 4 million, Billie Jean over 3 million, Beat It well over 2 million and both P.Y.T. and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ were past 1 million – even Human Nature was eligible for Gold as a stand-alone digital single. Those sales are worth 1,3 million equivalent album sales as per the new RIAA rules. Then there is also streams. The Thriller video alone was watched 192 million times since September 2014 to date in the US, which is worth 128,000 equivalent album sales. Add in all pre-2014 views, other songs and audio streams as well, the addition of 2 platinum discs was indeed easily achieved.

This was so easily achieved that only one year later a new award arrived:


Major audit? Well, not exactly. The catalog of Michael Jackson is full of songs that performed incredibly well in the digital age. If we check all download sales, Spotify and YouTube streams of his albums, we have the below estimated results for the US (EAS = Equivalent Album Sales):

  • Thriller – 3,1 million EAS, includes 14 million downloads of singles.
  • Bad – 1,8 million EAS, includes 7 million downloads of singles.
  • Off The Wall – 745,000 EAS, includes 3,5 million downloads of singles.
  • Dangerous – 740,000 EAS, includes 2,5 million downloads of singles.
  • History – 705,000 EAS, includes 1,4 million downloads of singles.

We need to also factor in proper album sales achieved since the last award. For example, Dangerous scanned over 700,000 units, with 740,000 EAS coming from digital results, an 8th Platinum award is undoubtedly overdue. Off The Wall faces exactly the same situation with 1,7 million since its last date-specific award in 1995 and plenty of EAS units. As a double album with 3,7 million shipped – 200,000 units since its last award, History needs only 300,000 EAS to be eligible. In other words, all those albums were eligible for one more platinum award by February 2017.

The fact that only Thriller and Bad were awarded, the two that sold in the millions with EAS only, tells us one thing – Epic hasn’t audited the pure album sales of those albums, they only added the newly eligible digital sales. This is also visible with Bad‘s award. Thanks to all the previous certifications studied, we know the album, without EAS, has shipped over 9,8 million units to date – over 8 million by 1994, scanned over 1,75 million since, plus a few sales via clubs in that same period. With as many as 1,8 million EAS, it is eligible for 11xP. Instead of 9,8m + 1,8m, Epic only added 1,8 million to 9xP, resulting in a 10xP award.

This situation is confirmed also by the absence of certifications for both Number Ones and The Essential. They sold respectively 5,38 million and 2,62 million which make them both eligible for 5xP while they remain at 4xP and 3xP respectively.

We saw that in recent years that Epic has been working by batches for audit purpose. They did a large one in 2009, one more in 2013 and the next one should be coming relatively soon – at the latest most likely in June 2019 for the 10th anniversary of his passing. The below table lists every form of information that has been identified during this article, and what we can expect from this upcoming audit!

From now on, you will be able to avoid various traps hidden behind certifications. Was it date-specific?, which sales were audited?, which albums are still active?, were multi-disc albums considered?, how many copies remain unsold?, where do Soundscan sales stand by now and by the last award?, and when were club sales achieved? and so forth. All those questions should be raised each and every time you try to identify up to date sales of an album.

As usual, I hope you enjoyed reading this article! Feel free to ask questions through the comment section if something remains unclear!

Sources: RIAA, Billboard, Soundscan, BMG Music Club, Columbia House, Yahoo News, Hits Daily Double, JET Magazine, Epic, Spotify, YouTube.

15 thoughts on “Understanding: RIAA / Label audits – The case of Michael Jackson”

  1. wow wow just wow at the detailed analysis. loved reading every bit of that! i guess we now know who the next artist to be posted will be 😉 especially that his US sales are now done, and those generated from his days with jackson 5!

  2. I would like a similar analysis for GARTH BROOKS. Obviously, his team knows how to play with the RIAA rules. Some chart freaks suggest he’s over-certified (plus double albums and box sets rising his total amount of certified units high enough to rival Elvis).

  3. Many thanks for this very, very interesting and informative article!

    There is one thing that I do not fully understand: The Certification method for Multi-Disc-Albums. You wrote: “As a double album with 3,7 million shipped – 200,000 units since its last award, History needs only 300,000 EAS to be eligible.”

    As far as I know 1 EAS equals 10 Digital Song Downloads and/or 1500 Streams. Lets assume that History generated 300 k EAS with Streaming and Digital Single Sales. Would RIAA really count those EAS twice just because the Source Album was a 2-Disc Set decades ago? I do not know – maybe they do but from my point of view this would be somewhat illogical. To evaluate 3,7 Million Double Album Sales as 7,4 Million Units is understandable. Adding in 300 k EAS should result in 7,7 Million Units – not 8 (except the RIAA defines 1 EAS Unit for a Double Albums with 20 Downloads and/or 3000 Streams).

    Speaking of Units and Michaels History Album: I also have it on Vinyl and the set consist of 3 records. Theoretically it would be conceivable that the RIAA evaluates this as 3 units (I’m pretty sure they do not). If History had been published in the vinyl era, that would surely be the case.

    1. Hi Jason!

      It is normal if you are not fully understand – it’s make that’s my error 😉

      I had that in mind while writting the file, I have put the valid number but then extended the formula of the other albums without noticing it broke HIStory’s total. I’m going to fix it right now!

  4. Your best article yet. Please, the international sales for MJ’s music must be done soon! It looks like MJ sold around 30M digital singles from his Epic studio albums, with physical additions and then international sales he must be one of the biggest singles artists ever!

  5. Great analysis. Is its possible if you can do a similar analysis on MJ’s singles? Me and many other MJ fans believe that several of his songs are not properly certified in the US. So it would be nice to see their actual sales.

    1. Hi Angelo!

      All his singles figures (physicals, downloads, streams) are already present as well as the overall sales they generated in equivalent album sales (page 49).

  6. Thanks for this detailed article. I would like an article like this for the worldwide sales of Michael Jackson’s albums. It’s impossible that many worldwide album sales are basically stop in the 90’s and 2000’s like the 30 million copies of HIStory double album (60 million of double albums) or the “only” 13 million copies of Invincible since 2002… As a Wikipedian sometimes I search for new sources to update Michael’s album sales but it seems there are no virtually updates since decades! My opinion is that Epic/Sony doesen’t have any interest in updating sales because Michael Jackson (now his Estate) was the artist with the highest royalties on album sales (about 25% of each album)… What do you think?

    1. Charts and RIAA Certs always had been easy to manipulate

      via OVER CERTIFICATION, payola or giveaway with concert tickets

      in the 90s most albums were over certified. The results are still today visible. IN the US there are still some chains which have 40 or more copies of albums like ACHTUNG BABY by U2 on stock. And believe me or not most of them were manufactured in 1991 haha
      it sold 5,4 million copies but was certified 8xPLATINUM

      prince released MUSICOLOGY in 2004 and it was celebrated as comeback and it was certified 2xPLATINUM by RIAA. actually it was a giveaway with each concert ticket. Some people had bought the album before and got a second copy ”for free”

      2xPLATINUM had an effect in germany and UK because MTV and radio stations here were curious and thought PRINCE new music has success in the US Again
      so they programmed MUSICOLOGY singles in the airplay and thinking ,, WE MUST PLAY HIS SONG BECAUSE HE IS SUCCESSFUL WITH THOSE IN THE US”

  7. double CDS count twice
    i wondered as a child that so many people bought MELLON COLLIE AND THE INFINITE .. by smashing pumpkins

    it was certified 10xPLATINUM =DIAMOND but albums that sold half were higher in the year end charts in the US than that album

    but as a teen i found out that sales were just 4,4 million and that it was counted twice
    in every article it is said that it was their breakthrough. but one moment. SIAMESE DREAM was released in 1993 and was certified 4xPLATINUM and sales stand at 4,6 million

    On the other hand there is THE WALL by pink floyd =24xPLATINUM = ca. 12 million shipped

    but the double cd cost like 2 CDs = between 20 and 30 Euros (in germany) it is only fair to calculate this that people willing to pay so much money

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