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

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Columbia House Records

IV) The pivotal year – 1994

The year 1994 was supposed to be quiet. It could have been, but not after the RIAA decided to change its rules to allow all kinds of sales to be certified, including the well known Music Club sales and their heavy subscription offers and gifts. This update led to various sizable impacts. The most famous of them all is the Greatest Hits 1971-1975 by the Eagles which suddenly jumped from 14xP to 22xP.

Michael Jackson didn’t fit the typical profile for the Columbia House target audience during the early days of the company, with consumers being more into Folk / Americana / Country / Rock music, but he still sold his albums there. Off The Wall was introduced in the Club in July 1981, Thriller from July 1983, Bad from July 1988, and Dangerous from September 1992. Those sales were first audited by Epic in September 1994, resulting in the following certifications:


Those awards are clearly not date-specific. The criteria’s were reached earlier but some sales weren’t allowed. Thanks to the previous awards and Soundscan sales since then, we know the maximum retail sales up to September 1994. Bad was at most on 7,2 million, Thriller on 22,3 million while Dangerous had scanned 5,45 million. Thus, we can deduce that via Clubs Bad sold at least 800,000 copies, Thriller at least 1,7 million and Dangerous at least 550,000.

Since all three albums were certified at once, it is fairly clear that Off The Wall would have been also if it had been eligible. Its last award was 6xP in 1988. Is it normal to see the LP still under 7 million in spite of 6 more years of sales plus all music clubs sales? From available information, we can tell the album sold from 800,000 to 900,000 copies at retail since 1988. Did it sell close to nothing via both the BMG Music Club and Columbia House?

At the former club, Jackson had 4 albums listed on their all-time Top 100 sellers:

50. MICHAEL JACKSON – THRILLER (EPIC) (923,000 units)
61. MICHAEL JACKSON – BAD (SONY) (879,000 units)
78. MICHAEL JACKSON – HISTORY (EPIC) (730,000 units)
100. MICHAEL JACKSON – DANGEROUS (SONY) (298,000 units)

Off The Wall, if available, sold poorly at BMG Music Club, missing the list that all the other albums made. On Columbia House, we know that it was always available, but we also know that only albums listed and pictured on printed magazines sold well. Was it listed on ads then? I collected various such ads from Columbia House to build the below table, showing the availability of albums related to Michael Jackson.

With this list, it now feels fairly natural that Off The Wall was the only album which failed to get a jump in certification after the change of RIAA rules. It was never A-List material via clubs, at BMG nor Columbia. During the MJ fever in 1984 various albums related to him appeared promoted at Columbia, but still not Off The Wall. However Thriller continued to be listed during the entirety of the 80s and returned regularly as soon as Jackson was a part of the news. Bad clearly made most of its impact during the 80s, only returning to accompany the newly available Dangerous in September 1992.

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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