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

  • 57


II) Years 1987-1990

Expectations were massive. It wasn’t even a surprise to see the album ship the unreal 2,25 million copies upon release. By then the all-time record of the label. The album didn’t disappoint and quickly required new shipments. When Epic certified it in November 1987, the number of units shipped had topped 3 million:


In December, the album achieved 4xP. We can interpret it as an extra shipment just in time for Christmas which may be enough to supply the demand until the end of the album’s era. Singles from Bad continued to be successful though, and the album was still selling 1 million units every quarter:


Date: 26/09/1987 – Run:  *1*-1-1-1-1-1-2-3-3-2-2-2-2-2- (14 wsf)
            02/01/1988: 2-3-4-4-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-4-3-3-3-2-2-4-5-5-4-3-4-5-10-14-15-16-20-22-24-27-27-26-30-34-36-40-39-39-47-48-50-58-58-59-61-60-48-48-50-52-52- (67 wsf)
            07/01/1989: 45-42-42-42-50-55-57-59-65-76-80-89-102-121-134-156-166-165-168-187 (87/39/6 wks)

The album reached 6xP after 38 weeks, exactly at the same time that it left the Top 5 for the first time. It is important to understand the process of retailers. They always make sure they are able to supply the demand. To do that they need to adjust their stocks as per the pace of sales of an album. They used to stock enough copies to supply for 2 to 3 months of demand. Let’s simulate the situation:

  • Weeks 1-10: an album sold 500,000 units and sells 50,000 copies per week. Retailers will have about 500,000 copies in stock, 1 million units shipped in total.
  • Weeks 11-20: the album is up to 800,000 units and now sells 100,000 copies per week. Retailers ordered 800,000 more copies: they pushed their stock from 500,000 units to 1 million while selling 300,000 copies in-between.
  • Weeks 21-25: the album holds strong for several weeks, it climbs to 1,2 million and still sells 100,000 units per week. Retailers maintain roughly 1 million units stocked.
  • Weeks 26-29: the album slows down to 60,000 copies per week for 4 weeks. Those 240,000 units shipped reduce stocks from 1 million to 760,000, but this is still more than enough to supply the demand of an album selling 60,000 copies per week. No more copies are shipped.
  • Weeks 30-35: the album slows down to 40,000 copies per week for 4 weeks. Those 160,000 units shipped reduce stocks from 760,000 to 600,000, but this is still more than enough to supply the demand of an album selling 40,000 copies per week. No more copies are shipped.
  • Weeks 36-50: the album averages 20,000 copies per week for 15 weeks. Those 300,000 units shipped reduce stocks from 600,000 to 300,000, but this is still more than enough to supply the demand of an album selling 20,000 copies per week. No more copies are shipped.
  • Start of the catalog phase: the album stabilizes around 5,000 copies per week for some time, and its promotion is over. Stocks of 300,000 are too big to fulfil the requirements, 200,000 copies are returned.
  • Catalog phase: the album continues to sell 5,000 copies per week for a long time. Retailers maintain their stocks inside the 50,000-100,000 range week after week.

This fictive evolution in table format:

Obviously, not all albums morph into great catalog sellers. We saw with Cher various albums that had returns sending them under their certified level and they were unable to reach those levels as the albums were deleted shortly afterwards.

In the case of Bad, its weekly sales decelerated after 9 months, when it suddenly left the Top 5 to stabilize around the Top 20 and then the Top 40 positions. If we focus on its run after falling out of the Top 5, those 49 weeks easily represent over 1 million retail sales. It wasn’t certified 7xP though because the units sold by then were already shipped before the 6th award. We can see via the RIAA certifications that Bad was shipped at a rate of 1 million units every 10 weeks, e.g. 100,000 copies per week, a standard rate for a Top 5 album. Retail sales were for sure under 6 million when it was certified 6xP. Once it dropped to the Top 20, and then the Top 40, stocks were enough to avoid requesting new heavy shipments.

The album hasn’t gone from 100,000 to 0 units shipped per week the day it broke the 6 million barrier. Shipments decelerated themselves to end somewhere between 6 million and 7 million. In fact, Epic reported 6,5 million copies shipped by the start of 1989. At that point, it suffered the second deceleration, dropping from consistent Top 50 positions to out of the Top 200 in a few months, so we can’t expect more relevant copies to have been shipped afterwards. Nor can we expect heavy returns as from June 1988 to January 1989 the album was already on a decreasing stage with steady sales, so most required returns already happened along the way.

Back to the RIAA awards, the 6th Platinum award of Bad didn’t come alone:


This certification of Off The Wall tells us many things:

  • Epic was caring about auditing Michael Jackson‘s catalog albums.
  • Off The Wall was still under 6 million units by the last award of Bad 10 weeks earlier…
  • … so its 6xP certification was date-specific.
  • Thriller was still under 21 million units shipped.

As Bad ended its road around 6,5 million copies and Off The Wall broke 6 million during 1988, we could predict the pair to reach 7xP at some stage. What about Thriller though? If Epic cared about auditing Off The Wall, it is safe to say they would have certified Thriller if they could. It is also safe to say it is a bigger catalog seller than Off The Wall and it reached 20xP before its predecessor achieved 5xP in 1985. The difference is that the 20th award of Thriller clearly included a lot of copies that were in the process of being returned. The album was so gigantic that it shipped 1 million units on some weeks. Obviously, it is harder to control stocks correctly under such circumstances.

The catalog sales were great though and it managed not only to sell all its copies shipped by October 1984, but also 1 million more units by 1990:


Several catalog albums by Epic were audited during 1989, so again it appears to be a date-specific certification. We can also safely assume the Jackson‘s other two albums albums were under 7 million, otherwise they would have been certified also. To resume, by mid-1990, Off The Wall had shipped around 6,2/6,3 million units, Thriller 21,0 million and Bad about 6,6/6,7 million. By checking carefully all details we can already identify ballparks much thinner than million by million. One noticeable detail though is that those figures refer to units as eligible for RIAA awards, which we will see, weren’t comprehensive by 1990.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *