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

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I) Years 1979-1986

I’m jumping directly into the 80s, well, more precisely to 12/1979. His early Motown albums weren’t eligible for certifications as this label wasn’t affiliated with the RIAA at the time. This is why Got To Be There and Ben weren’t certified by then. Instead the first solo award Michael Jackson ever received for a solo album was:


Gold and Platinum for Off The Wall way back in December 1979. It was a #5 smash, moving a calculated 1,35 million units for the period, so nothing to notice here. It improved its peak to #3 in 1980 performing very well in that year. The LP cleared easily the 2 and 3 million levels during 1980 but wasn’t awarded any further.

This situation was normal as the multi-platinum award wasn’t introduced by the RIAA. It came in 1984. By that point Thriller had been released and had dominated the album chart that it had led for a record-breaking 37 weeks. This brought it the standard Gold and Platinum awards very early on in its run:


During the following months, reports emerged stating 5 million sales, then 7, then 12 and then 19 million US sales. Facing more and more mega-sellers the RIAA decided to introduce the multi-platinum awards. Thriller was one of the first albums to enjoy those awards with a massive 20xPlatinum award:


What does this certification tell us? It tells us two things rather than one: that Thriller shipped more than 20 million units and that Thriller shipped less than 21 million units. We will see later how important this second fact is in order to gauge accurate certifications.

Surprisingly, or not, Off The Wall wasn’t certified. Awards are not free nor automatic, as labels need to request and pay for them. At the time, Epic made it clear that it wasn’t in their interest to audit past albums.The albums that mattered were the new ones being currently promoted. The difference of treatment between new and catalog products is one more fundamental element. We will see that Epic‘s position evolved on that stance several times.

As multi-platinum albums started to be talked about more and more and as Off The Wall was still going strong, charting inside the Top 50 in 1984 and hitting 5 million sales, Epic decided to audit the album a few months later:


From that point, both albums were already clearly under the catalog category and not moving copies fast enough to quickly achieve a further 1 million sales. The heavy shipments from mid-84 were being cleared, some more copies were shipped here and there but not enough to claim 21xP and 6xP awards for Thriller and Off The Wall. Then came Bad in August 1987…

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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