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

Michael Jackson History Statue

V) Years 1995-2000

In June 1995 the album HIStory: Past, Present & Future Book I was released. It wasn’t a standard album. It was one new CD plus one new compilation, which brings two relevant impacts. The first one is to make HIStory eligible for duplicated certifications, the second is to cannibalize catalog sales of Jackson‘s remaining albums. From 1991 to 1994 Thriller scanned on average of 188,000 units per year. Then from 1995 to 2000 it dropped to 114,000 units.

Those sales are still healthy, enabling it to regularly hit new certifications especially with adding club sales as well. During the 90s Epic continued to regularly audit its catalog.

JACKSON, MICHAEL OFF THE WALL 12/06/95 EPIC M(7)
JACKSON, MICHAEL THRILLER 07/07/97 EPIC M(25)
JACKSON, MICHAEL BLOOD ON THE DANCE FLOOR 07/17/97 EPIC G
JACKSON, MICHAEL DANGEROUS 05/30/00 EPIC M(7)
JACKSON, MICHAEL THRILLER 10/30/00 EPIC M(26)
JACKSON, MICHAEL BLOOD ON THE DANCE FLOOR 10/30/00 EPIC P

We knew that Off The Wall was close to 7 million. This was confirmed in December 1995. This is a typical date-specific certification. One for which we know it perfectly represents sales to date. Off the Wall had sold 7 million by December 1995, no more and no less, give or take some thousands. You may have noticed I used the word sold instead of shipped. For albums so old, there is no reason to expect big orders from retailers, especially now that HIStory was going to damage catalog albums. Thus, sales to date and shipments are virtually the same thing with only the low ongoing stocks still unsold.

After scanning 400,000 units since its last award plus some sales via clubs, Thriller made it to 25xP in July 1997. This confirms the fact that the 1994 certification wasn’t date-specific as it was most likely at around 24,6 million by then.

While Epic continued to certify a lot of their catalog albums, the next deep catalog item from Jackson to get an award was Dangerous in 2000 at 7xP. Its Soundscan sales were up to 5,76 million at that point with very little ongoing sales and thus irrelevant stocks, implying over 1,2 million sales on music clubs. With 300,000 sales at BMG, it means 900,000 mostly at Columbia House. This follows the same pattern as Jackson‘s label partner Mariah Carey with her early 90s blockbusters like Music Box and Daydream.

Continuing its impressive run, Thriller broke 26xP in 2000. This award is the first one out of all of them that seems weird. Now that most of the paperwork was done to audit old sales and that the rules were stable, why has it jumped by 1 million while scanning only 300,000 plus units? Interestingly, the 1997 release Blood On The Dance Floor went from Gold to Platinum at the same date. It is interesting because that album too had Soundscan sales way under the requirements – only 230,000 units at the time. The RIAA does not make up awards though. Since Blood is absent from the BMG list, the most likely scenario is that Columbia House had a special offer including those two albums in the late 90s, providing them a sizable boost. We now also know that Blood had some 770,000 unscanned sales.

All those 1995-2000 awards tell us one more important factor – Bad was still under 9 million by the year 2000. We didn’t know if its 8th Platinum award was date-specific in 1994 as its certification came along with other albums. Considering its 400,000 Soundscan sales from 09/1994 to 12/2000 plus a few sales via clubs, it sets a maximum of 8,55 million units shipped by the 1994 award.

Above, we are talking about catalog albums, but what about the new album, HIStory?

JACKSON, MICHAEL HISTORY: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE BOOK I 08/16/95 EPIC G
JACKSON, MICHAEL HISTORY: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE BOOK I 08/16/95 EPIC P
JACKSON, MICHAEL HISTORY: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE BOOK I 08/16/95 EPIC M (5)
JACKSON, MICHAEL HISTORY: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE BOOK I 01/11/96 EPIC M (6)
JACKSON, MICHAEL HISTORY: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE BOOK I 10/12/99 EPIC M (7)

HIStory was certified for 3 million units shipped by the start of 1996. Its Soundscan sales were up to 1,9 million, which suggests heavy sales at music clubs. It was expected since it moved 730,000 units at BMG alone and was available at Columbia House too. Can we get a smaller figure for clubs as a whole? The 6th Platinum award was too recent to commit on unsold copies, but by 1999 the album’s promotional period was over and hardly shipping anymore. Epic was busy updating certifications by then, so we also know it broke 3,5 million sales very close to the date of the 7xP plaque (double albums count as two discs in RIAA certifications). By then, it had scanned 2,42 million units, giving room for roughly 1,05 million sales on clubs, in line with the decreasing space of Columbia House.

To resume the situation as of the end of 2000:

  • Off The Wall: Reached 7 million by the end of 1995, irrelevant sales via clubs, scanned nearly 500,000 units since, and shipped 7,45 million.
  • Thriller: Reached 26 million by 10/2000, shipped 26 million.
  • Bad: Was between 8 million and 8,55 million by 09/1994, scanned 400,000 copies since, shipped between 8,45 million and just under 9 million.
  • Dangerous: Reached 7 million by 05/2000, irrelevant sales via clubs afterwards, scanned low numbers since and shipped 7,05 million.
  • HIStory: Reached 3,5 million by 10/1999, irrelevant sales via clubs afterwards, scanned low numbers since and shipped 3,55 million.
  • Blood On The Dancefloor: Reached 1 million by 10/2000, irrelevant sales via clubs afterwards, scanned low numbers since and shipped 1 million.

As you can notice, give or take 50,000 units, shipments to date of all albums minus Bad are fully under control.

13 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?
    Martin

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