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

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VIII) Years 2009-2012

For the music industry, 2009 will always remain the year that saw the once child prodigy turned unbreakable superstar pass away. The June 25 death of the artist was followed by an earthquake. His sales reached unseen numbers with his entire catalog go through the roof.

Before the day the music died, Thriller was already updated at 28xP. A diamond can’t be ignored after all. One more time it was updated exactly 1 million scanned units later. This highlights two facts, Epic was caring as much as ever about Thriller and sales via clubs truly became irrelevant.


These several certifications seem useless due to the massive influx of new sales. Number Ones was well over 3 million scanned by then, The Essential well over 1 million (worth 2 platinum discs), Off The Wall had sold way more than 1 million since 1995 and Thriller destroyed the million mark in 2009 alone. In other words, those RIAA awards were all late compared to Soundscan sales, which were already known and more precise.

At times it is needed to carefully analyse every possible data to get answers. In fact, this list of awards contains the solution of the last mystery remaining on Jackson‘s album sales – the total of Bad to date. By August 2009 Off The Wall had scanned 1,1 million units since its last platinum disc, and 700,000 units since the remaster edition was issued in 2001. Concretely, it means that Epic had to audit the album in full to upgrade it, the remaster alone wasn’t shipped enough to improve the RIAA total of Off The Wall in spite of the huge hype which occurred Jackson‘s passing.

At the same time, Bad had scanned 850,000 units since its 8th colored disc and 500,000 units since its remaster. More copies were shipped to supply the demand, so the album must have been very close to hitting 9xP, but it hadn’t made it. Although digital sales lowered stocks, it is safe to assume that Bad had more copies on shelves by August 2009 than by September 1994 for obvious reasons. That’s 850,000 copies sold, plus some more additional shipments, but still no 9xP. Basically, the award for Off The Wall tells us we can safely conclude that Bad was somewhere from 8 million to 8,05 million when certified in 1994.

The audit wasn’t 100% comprehensive as The Ultimate Collection was clearly over 125,000 units by then as it had scanned 160,000 units. This case is a bit specific though. For recent releases like this one we can expect labels to have their shipments stored in an online system. If that is the case, they should be filtering the data to see what’s eligible when requesting awards. By filtering Jackson‘s albums which are over 500,000 units, The Ultimate Collection doesn’t appear as it is eligible only thanks to the multi-discs rule. This seems to be exactly what happened – in fact, The Essential too was first awarded after being eligible for Platinum status and above. The other omission was Greatest Hits HIStory Volume 1, over 1 million by August 2009, the album remained Gold. It wasn’t shipped anymore and was deleted from the catalog of albums available for retailers to purchase. It was selling mostly digital units and kind of irrelevant among Jackson‘s catalog due to the releases of Number Ones and The Essential. For those reasons, it seems Epic hasn’t judged it worthy to certify an album which was most likely flagged as inactive on their system.

The period 2009-2012 also had several new releases, most notably This Is It and the first posthumous release of new material, Michael.


Both albums fell short of their certified amounts as of this day – This Is It is up to a rounded 1,8 million units scanned while Michael is only on 560,000 units. Certifications for both came early and both were Christmas releases, so we can jump on the conclusion of an over-shipment. We should differentiate those two cases though.

Michael was clearly over-shipped. The record had a disastrous reception after the controversy of whether some songs featured Michael Jackson‘s or somebody else’s. This Is It is a different story. At the time, Hits Daily Double followed the case closely. It shipped 1,5 million units upon release. By early December, it had scanned 890,000 units and shot to a 2xP award. Why were retailers still ordering new copies while the initial stock was easily enough to supply the demand? Hits Daily Double didn’t only reveal its original shipment, they also mentioned the album was selling copies in theaters where nearly 10 million Americans saw it.

As you can guess, a theater isn’t a place under the panel of Soundscan. Those kind of sales shouldn’t be overlooked – in 2008 as many as 3,0% of all US album sales were made at Concert venues. While 3% doesn’t seem like that much, this share is spread over a limited number of artists, those drawing a lot of people to their tours. It means that some artists concerned can sell 10-30% of their sales at concerts. In recent years we saw such examples happening and adding to Soundscan tallies thanks to bundles – Prince, Metallica, Madonna, and Cher etc. – but it isn’t automatic. With This Is It, its life in theaters was completely overlooked. Sadly, we will need to wait until its third Platinum award – and it may take a very long time to happen – to ultimately estimate how many unscanned copies it sold. Its Soundscan sales are now up to 1,8 million, so unlike Michael this album is most likely fully legitimate as a 2xP album after considering all its sales.

After the audit of August 2009, Epic stopped auditing catalog albums for a while. Number Ones and The Essential scanned enough copies to go 4xP and 3xP respectively by December 2009 but no certification came nor did an award arrive in late 2009, 2010, 2011 nor in 2012. The chaotic results of the industry during those years have again impacted the way labels invested their money and certifying old records was clearly not seen as worth the price during those dark years.

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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