A step into club sales of all-time top US sellers

Get any 6 records or tapes for a penny!

The EaglesGreatest Hits 1971-1975 sold 38 million copies in the US, making it the best selling album of all-time in the country. That’s a good story, at least good enough to make headlines of major American media for a pair of days. Many will simply think “wow!” when reading about it, charts followers’ reaction has been “How?” yet.

The increase of 71-75‘s awards from 29xPlatinum to 38xPlatinum has been debated a lot during the last few weeks. This album has been surrounded by controversy for much longer though. From 1990 to 2002, it shot from 12xPlatinum to 28xPlatinum while scanning 4,5 million units at retail as per Soundscan.

While it’s always good to be doubters, we shouldn’t automatically call for conspiracy as soon as something looks suspicious. When an album is audited, it’s natural to expect it to increase only by as much as it sold since its last upgrade. It may seem sensitive, but it isn’t. Every certification has its story. Chart rules evolve, audits aren’t always comprehensive nor they are necessarily up to date.

The most infamous case is the one of music clubs. We already went through them, pointing out precisely the case of the Eagles. Fact is, in 1994 all club sales, including free goods and initial subscription offers, were made eligible. This resulted into massive jumps in certifications for some albums.

Now that Discogs is bringing us a lot of information, we can exploit it. For nearly 25 years we had to take RIAA increases thanks to clubs for granted. What about challenging these boosts with proper data? Let’s check the share of club sales among Discogs’ owners for the 9 albums that sold over 20 million units in the US. Namely, EaglesGreatest Hits 71-75 and Hotel California, Michael Jackson‘s Thriller, Led Zeppelin‘s IV, AC/DC‘s Back in Black, Hootie & the Blowfish‘s Cracked Rear View, Fleetwood Mac‘s Rumours, Shania Twain‘s Come On Over and Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon.

Raw data of Discogs US owners

The first column refers to formats (LP, Cassette, 8-Track, CD, Others). The second column distinguishes various versions and periods, including retail versions and club versions. Bolded lines refer to the later. Original is the number of owners of versions that came out the year of release, reissue versions from later years until 1990 (except for Soundscan-era albums) and Soundscan lists the number of owners of versions from 1991 to date. The LP Recent line points out owners of LP reissues from the last few years. That line has been ignored on calculations since they are pure collectors units that don’t impact historical data. Please notice that there is two yellow cells, one for Thriller‘s LP Columbia House and one for Cracked Rear View‘s CD Columbia House. These two albums have been released but have yet to get an entry on Discogs, meaning club sales for them will be incomplete.

We can notice the massive sales of Led Zeppelin‘s IV at the Record Club of America, a music club that was a kind of budget club and that was shot down a few years later for financial reasons. It may be the reason of the large 1999 increases in certification of the group’s pre-1976 albums. If that is indeed the case, remaining huge sellers from that club, including early 70s albums from the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers Band, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, still have their sales from there unaccounted for. We will return to this issue on later articles related to them.

These values are strict raw data. As explained in our introduction to Discogs’ owners methods, all numbers must be weighted since some albums, formats, and artists are more collected than others. This must be our first step: define how much collected are each of these albums. We can very clearly see that CDs are poorly collected since both albums from the Soundscan era, Cracked Rear View and Come On Over, have way less owners than remaining albums. Then, the most rock-favoured an album is, the most it is collected. Lastly, compilations are poorly collected in comparison to studio efforts. It’s very visible if we compare both Eagles’ albums.

Valorization of Discogs US owners

In order to value Discogs owners, we first need to weight owners per format. After various adjustments, I went with following values: LPs = 0,75 ; Cassettes / 8-Tracks = 2 ; CDs / Downloads = 5 ; others = 1. We downgrade highly collected items (mostly LPs) and boost others. Clubs releases themselves were counted with a factor 2 since they are less collected than traditional versions.

The following table lists the raw number of owners and the same number weighted per format (WpF). Then, in order to consider artists and albums that are more collected by others, we compare US sales with our weighted number of owners. Please note that for Sales, we went with last values from respective articles of all artists. Since Hootie & the Blowfish hasn’t been treated, to simplify the matter I took the mid-way point between former certifications.

When we set up a mathematical model, it’s always fundamental to make sure all our intermediate results do represent what they are supposed to represent. Here, we are trying to value discogs’ numbers depending on the album’s appeal among collectors. Results suggest that the most collected albums are Dark Side of the Moon (1 buyer every 394 is a Discogs user == every Discogs user represents 394 buyers) followed by Rumours and IV. If we had to guess that’s exactly the top 3 that would have come out.

Hotel California, Thriller and Back In Black are all strongly collected, but their appeal to mass audiences downgrades their ratio in comparison to the previous ones. 1971-1975 represents an era and a genre that is collected too, but the fact it is a compilation makes it less appealing. Lastly, the two 90s albums are way lower, with the rock one being twice as much collected as the female album. All that makes perfect sense: our model is good.

Converting Discogs data into sales figures

First, we collect Discogs raw data. Second, we value it. Third, we exploit it. That latter step consists in using our ratios and apply them back to the raw values. That will convert owners into sales. Results are displayed below.

Blue lines are deduced by multiplying Discogs owners with the conversion ratio we obtained earlier. Orange lines exploit RIAA and Soundscan data. The first line is the number of units certified as of the start of 1991 – simple assumptions are done from last pre-1991 award and monthly sales up to that year. The second line is the up to date Soundscan number. Please keep in mind that Thriller‘s Soundscan figure has been adjusted since the official number double counts the 2001 edition, inflating its tally by 1,1 million. Clubs sales are simply the gap between pre-Soundscan plus Soundscan sales and up to date estimates.

Consistency with RIAA awards

We can point out a striking correlation between both methods. Greatest Hits 1971-1975 is indeed far and away the top selling album through music clubs, followed by IV and Back In Black. This table proves huge increases in RIAA certifications during the 90s of all these albums were completely legitimate. The two albums that have really big gaps are Thriller and Cracked Rear View, the two for which we know versions are missing on Discogs, so it’s again perfectly consistent.

One may argue we get these results because we calculated our conversion ratio with up to date sales, which themselves use RIAA’s jumps thanks to club sales. Even if we re-do all calculations assuming 0 club sales for every album, focusing on pre-1991 certifications and Soundscan data only, as per Discogs’ method Greatest Hits 1971-1975 still emerges as the top seller of the pack on clubs, followed by IV.

The BMG all-time Top 100 list

A second notable conclusion is that 2003’s list of top selling albums of the BMG Music Club must be taken with a pinch of salt. While figures for all albums inside the list are consistent with remaining data and make sense, it seems to miss various albums. IV is the most owned album among all of those at that club in both CD and Cassette format. It wasn’t part of their Top 100 with a cut at 298,000 units. In the other side, among the remaining 7 albums that were available there, 6 appeared on it with at least 923,000 sales each. It appears highly unlikely that IV hasn’t sold enough to be part of that ranking, even if we factor in appropriate weighting of owners. In fact, if we do, we conclude on an expected value of more than 1,5 million sales from BMG Music Club for this record. The same can be said at a lower level about Hotel California which, if not missed, should have been really just behind the top 100.

Albums unaudited for many years

This exercise that compares two distinct methods is already very interesting even when we can mostly guess results. What’s even more interesting is that we can perfectly do the same one for albums that have never been updated by the RIAA since the eligibility of all club sales was granted in 1994. Grease was last certified in 1984 at 8xPlatinum, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young went 7xPlatinum in 1992 with Déjà Vu, Dirty Dancing went 11xPlatinum at the start of 1994 with no club sales jump, then both Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em by MC Hammer and Can’t Slow Down by Lionel Richie remain 10xPlatinum since 1991 and 1985, respectively. Many more catalog albums remain certified at 4-8 million units since late 80s / early 90s. Thanks to Discogs, we can at last get a realistic view of their sales through music clubs.

Eagles’ recent RIAA certifications

Obviously, figures listed in this article do not explain the recent certifications of the Eagles. Their Greatest Hits went from 29xPlatinum to 38xPlatinum while Hotel California jumped from 16xPlatinum to 26xPlatinum. We also need to add Cracked Rear View there. It rocketed from 16xPlatinum to 21xPlatinum back in May despite very low catalog sales, download sales, and streaming points since its last award. It scanned less than 10,4 million while it came out during the Soundscan era. This album, just like both Eagles‘ albums, has been upgraded by the label Rhino.

Many discussed sales of Eagles‘ records since their last certifications. While it’s a part of the story, there is much more. If we focus on Greatest Hits 1971-1975, it scanned roughly 1,2 million units since 2006. Its singles were downloaded under 6 million times while they registered an estimated 400 million audio and video streams in the US. In total, that’s just over 2 million SPS, good enough to move up to 31xPlatinum. While this is absolutely massive, that is well short of 38xPlatinum.

If not for newly achieved sales, upgraded units must come from previously unaccounted for copies or from a change in certifications’ rules. As far as older sales not audited until recently are concerned, they are quite doubtful. It’s not completely unconceivable that Eagles‘ albums had some millions not certified until 2018. It’s truly unlikely, giving how many audits they were subject to, Discogs’ data, patterns of remaining Asylum’s awards, former Billboard charts, yearly catalog sales, Warner annual reports, etc. everything suggests their previous certifications were comprehensive, but still it is not completely impossible. That being said, how can we explain the case of Cracked Rear View? It’s a 1994 album that was certified and updated regularly from day one. Suddenly identifying 5 million sales doesn’t make sense. It’s all the more suspicious to expect Rhino to have found 7/8 million previously uncertified units of Eagles‘ albums that were sold during the Soundscan era.

As for RIAA rules, they haven’t change since last year with their current PDF dating June 2017. The Rolling Stone magazine stated that intriguing part on their news related to Eagles‘ certification:

the [RIAA] association told Rolling Stone that singles sales and other factors not initially tabulated into the RIAA’s platinum certification were retroactively added to the album’s sales total. In the case of Hotel California, sales of the Hot 100-topping title track were consolidated into album sales (10 singles purchases – physical or downloads – now count as one album)

Up to date, it has never been mentioned that physical singles can be merged into albums’ certifications. In fact, I mailed persons named as contact of the news on Billboards’ site. Anna Loynes from Scoop Marketing was kind enough to call for action RIAA’s staff Jonathan Lamy who answered me with below email:

Overall it’s somehow disappointing. A standard copy / paste, there’s nothing we already didn’t knew, and that still doesn’t tell us where these millions came from. It does confirm at least that RIAA rules haven’t change during the last year, implying that all extra sales are supposedly units that haven’t been previously accounted for. I answered back to the email, mentioning it still doesn’t clarify the huge inconsistency with former certifications but got no further answer. We can’t blame the RIAA for this unsatisfactory email, they have no right to publish receipts of labels. That would break their relationship of trust with them.

Warner Music Group’s contact was the only one in the loop to avoid comments, while the label is the only actor that can really put some light on this case. We are left with many questions but no good answer.

Although we are still not convinced by these awards, I would like to make it very clear that all conspiracy theories are plain absurd. Through the years, many suspicious certifications popped up and time gave us clarifications that proved they were legitimate. There is no reason to expect otherwise for these new ones. Even if in the long run they happen to be deemed incorrect, that can barely due to a human error during the process from a Rhino employee. In any case, it is key to understand how they were obtained in order to consider them as proper facts from now on.

What’s next?

Both the Eagles and Hootie & the Blowfish have been upgraded by Rhino, a label which currently handles various albums from the Warner Communications family. The point is that many US blockbusters come from it. Among the 6 remaining 20 million sellers, IV, Back In Black and Rumours are all concerned. If Warner missed a large chunk of their historical sales on previous audits, we may see huge updates on them happen in the near future too. Future certifications remain our best way to clarify this issue. Stay tuned!

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