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

OFF THE WALL.

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:

JACKSON, MICHAEL OFF THE WALL 12/10/79 EPIC G
JACKSON, MICHAEL OFF THE WALL 12/10/79 EPIC P

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:

JACKSON, MICHAEL THRILLER 01/31/83 EPIC G
JACKSON, MICHAEL THRILLER 01/31/83 EPIC P

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:

JACKSON, MICHAEL THRILLER 10/30/84 EPIC M (20)

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:

JACKSON, MICHAEL OFF THE WALL 06/24/85 EPIC M (5)

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…

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Heretis

RIAA makes record labels pay for audits and membership having no set rate. Most labels have reportedly said less than 10% of their releases have been profitable. Same kind of goes for soundscan. How much are these figures subject to manipulation and/or estimation? I’ve also read where Soundscan doesn’t contact every retailer, just the ones they believe are enough to get a good sample for weighted averages, even among its members. For instance, instead of calling all the WalMart stores, they’d call 1 or 2 and calculate the rest based on how many were sold but give less weight to… Read more »

John

A time for an update MJD? Some of these albums were re-certfied last year.

chris

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 ridicolous On the other hand… Read more »

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