Destroying Myths: related to Elvis Presley

Elvis 45 Records $5 Each

Pricing issues

The history of the 1970’s Christmas Album

This brings me on to another point made by the ESTATE in their statement explaining why they think Elvis is the greatest selling artist and this is the disqualification of certain albums because the wholesale trade price dropped below what the RIAA considered the acceptable norm for an album release. The Estate cited the 900,000 plus sales of THE ELVIS CHRISTMAS ALBUM (CAL 2428) as an example

Through their history, the RIAA had many price-related rules. Until 1974, certifications were quite simply based on dollar volume rather than units. Later on, a minimum price was still requested to prevent budget releases to shine over standard LPs. In this quote Galvin mentions an interesting point about the 1970 Christmas Album which had supposedly nearly 1 million sales unaccounted for because it was sold too cheaply. The certification history of this release is displayed below:

It’s important to understand these certifications to get the real mechanics behind Presley‘s US sales. The 1992 set of awards he received were traditional ones. Back then, club sales were mostly excluded and pricing rules were strict. The Christmas Album was under 2 million with this context. All club sales were made eligible in 1994. The album also reentered the Billboard Holiday Albums every year from 1991 to 1999. Both, club sales and ongoing catalog movements – close to 1 million units sold as per Soundscan – pushed it to an impressive 6xPlatinum award in the large audit of 1999.

Of course, it’s a golden opportunity to claim that certifications from 1992 were far from comprehensive. Once again though, the Christmas Album is the outlier. It was his only album that remained forever available on music clubs. If we check his remaining strong albums, they registered much more modest jumps after the eligibility of club sales was fully granted (Golden Records 1 from 5xP in 1992 to 6xP in 1999, How Great Thou Art, the 1957 Christmas Album all from 2xP in 1992 to 3xP in 1999).

RIAA certification batch from 2002

In mid 2002 the 1970 Christmas Album went 7xPlatinum. That awards campaign was made of two type of certifications. One type was about multi-discs sets, more on that later. Then there was albums which simply reached a new criteria thanks to ongoing sales. It was the case of Blue Hawaii for example, but also the Christmas Album. It made the Billboard Holiday Albums in late 1999, after the previous platinum disc, and continued to have residual sales during a few years although It’s Christmas Time had now replaced it. On top of that, its list price was $6,98 in CD, some $0,32 more per unit than the plateau of the RIAA. In concrete terms, it means that each 100,000 new sales were also rehabilitating 16,333 previously ineligible sales. From there, the LP wasn’t selling much anymore but still gained 3 more platinum discs!

We already explained that the batch of certifications from 2004 which was made possible by the addition of sales from Pickwick versions. That’s why the label mentioned for the Christmas Album is “RCA CAMDEN & PICKWICK”, because the award merges these versions together. Something we haven’t mention yet is that the price of these releases should have made them fall under the dollar volume criteria. It’s because before 2004 a more drastic change was operated at the RIAA.

The historical price criteria of the RIAA

In short, we are talking about the missing 900,000 sales mentioned by the Estate through Jorgensen for many years. In the past, it was necessary to reach both the unit criteria and the revenue criteria. These criteria were as below for each platinum disc:

One million units. Manufacturer’s dollar volume at least $2 million based on 33 1/3% of sugg. list price

The problem is that the 1970 Christmas Album was a budget release from day 1 and sold plenty of copies thanks to clubs free goods. Thus, even if RCA were able to prove 10 million units sold, the album hadn’t gross $20 million based on a third of suggested list price.

This exclusion of some units due to low gross numbers was confirmed by Jorgensen in his interview from 2001:

2. The ongoing modifications that the RIAA has made to adjust to new sales conditions and trends, include a number of different pricing parameters, that eliminate or reduce a substantial number of Elvis sales – including the dismissal of more than 1 million units of Elvis’ Christmas Album from 1970.

No more price threshold for deed catalog albums

In the middle of his fight for the throne against the Liberty label / Garth Brooks, Jorgensen managed to get rid of this rule from the RIAA. Right now, we can read the below text at the RIAA:

Catalog product, specifically pre-1972 album releases, are eligible for certification by meeting either the unit shipment or manufacturer’s dollar requirement for each award level. The purpose of this rule is to make certain exceptions for older albums that have very little supporting documentation substantiating that they meet both the unit requirement and the dollar requirement. Without the rule, these titles would potentially be unable to meet the dollar requirement based on the limited documentation available from sales that occurred decades ago.

To be exact, the RIAA removed the pricing threshold for pre-1972 albums in 2003. That update led to a massive flow of new Presley‘s certifications. It’s one more evidence that RCA can perfectly play the RIAA game. Thanks to these facts, we know that all pre-1972 Presley albums had 100% of their sales eligible in 2004. A quick overview of these certifications suggest the catalog wasn’t audited in full until 2011 though. In fact, 14 out of the 17 awards from 2004 were Pickwick-related while the remaining 3 were relatively recent releases, first issued in 1987-1993. Deep catalog items got upgraded at last with their full units in 2011, an upgrade which brought very interesting elements.

2011, the comprehensive update

Instantly, we know that each 1956-1971 album was up to date in 2011 when these awards occurred. In that case, since we know why they happened, we have one more priceless information: remaining 1956-1971 also had possibly ineligible units in their previous awards due to pricing issues. Even if they weren’t able to reach a new plateau thanks to the new RIAA, it means at least that they weren’t just over their award level.

Not all will be concerned. We have to wonder which albums had the lowest average revenue in their lifetime to see which ones got units excluded by former RIAA restrictions. The oldest albums, issued when the price was low, budget releases as well as good catalog sellers that moved into budget lines were hot contenders to have ineligible sales until 2011. To clarify this situation, let’s have a look at albums that were updated at that date.

Box sets of original albums enter the equation

Both 1956’s albums, Elvis Presley and Elvis, jumped to Platinum. It had to be expected as the suggested list price back then was only $3,98 for standard LPs. These awards are interesting for two reasons. First because they came one month before the larger audit of September 2011. Second because they were both certified at the same time, in August 10, 2010. The Legacy Edition which contained both sets together, issued on September 27, 2010, pushed both of them ahead of the million mark. The fact that the set wasn’t available for consumers until a month later doesn’t matter: as soon as a record is available for retailers to order, sales start to kick in.

How Great Thou Art was also updated in October 13, 2010 to 3xPlatinum. It was the only album certified at that date. Since it sold very well through the years, when the suggested list price was high enough to see dollar volume match units sold, it wasn’t due to the end of the price limit. Instead, the album moved past 3 million thanks to the Follow that Dream reissue that came out 3 months earlier. Obviously, it’s no coincidence that all these stand-alone certifications happened around the same time of new editions.

Then, none of his 25 LPs from 1957 to 1966 were updated in 2010/2011. Through these years the Stereo LP boomed. It was priced $1 higher than Mono recordings. Added to sales from later years and more expensive editions, their sales weren’t impacted by former dollar volume rules. An LP had possibly sales excluded on its last award still: the 1957 Elvis’ Christmas Album.

More suggested list price stories

The former was released at $3,98 and the price remained the same for several years. The CD reissue from 1985 had a suggested list price of $8,98 though. If we simplify the problem saying that only these two versions ever existed, the album needed more than 3 million units to hit 3xPlatinum in 1999 as soon as the CD represented less than 40,4% of its sales. Had the CD accounted for 20% of its total sales, then the album needed 3,614,000 units to be 3xPlatinum. Of course, the stereo version as well as 70s reissues mean the average price through years was higher, but there is still a possibility that the set was under $6 million in revenue went it reached 3 million units. What’s safe to say is that it remains under 4 million units since it hasn’t been upgraded since the end of this restrictive rule for pre-1972 albums.

We can also raise a point about His Hand In Mine, although it’s known that it is well over its 1 million units certified since the booklet of his recent reissue pointed out 1,5 million units sold – although there is no reference to that figure being a US-only one.

One pair of albums updated after 2011 because of the change of rules is Elvis In Person and That’s the Way It Is, two live sets from 1970. The date is important. The former was a reissue of the first LP from 1969’s package From Memphis to Vegas / From Vegas to Memphis. It explains why it completely failed to enter the Billboard 200 Album Chart. it also means nearly all its sales came as catalog, on average at a cheap price. The latter album sold well during the Christmas season of 1970, just before the increase in LP price by RCA from $4,98 to $5,98. It’s interesting because a third of that list price is roughly $2 which falls in line with the 1 million units / $2 million revenue criteria set by the RIAA. That’s why the pricing rule was removed only for pre-1972 albums, because from there the price was high enough to automatically grant both criteria were met if the units criteria was reached. This rules out the possibility of missing sales for albums released by RCA from March 1971.

The case of Camden budget albums

There is still one exception, releases from the budget line RCA Camden, the famous ones which were recertified in 2004 thanks to the addition of Pickwick units. Let’s check back their list:

You may remind that Jorgensen stated Pickwick sales amounted for 5 to 7 million units. Here we illustrated 6,3 million sales by sticking to the minimum gap with the newly certified amount. All these albums had obviously sold more. In fact, I Got Lucky went Platinum ultimately and an album like C’mon Everybody is no doubt much higher than 50,000 sales through Pickwick. If we add an average of 300,000 units on top of the certified amount, we reach nearly 10 million Pickwick sales, outside of the ballpark provided by Jorgensen who saws these receipts. What happened there?

On that table, I had purposely ignored pricing issues, I also included Double Dynamite while unlike others, it wasn’t released by RCA at first while Jorgensen was speaking about his catalog. I did these mistakes to point out how tricky it is to dig into such a catalog and how careful we should be. Now we will see an improved table that also includes estimated units that were previously excluded by the RIAA:

The point is that the former “Non-Pickwick” column includes estimates as per RIAA data which back in 1999 had these pricing rules in practice. With a list price of $1,89 it would take a massive 9,524,000 units for You’ll Never Walk Alone to be certified 3xPlatinum. But then, why hasn’t it gone 9xPlatinum after the pricing rule was removed for pre-1972 albums? We need to consider the suggested list price that matters is the average of its lifetime. The price of Camden records was increased to $2,98 the week of You’ll Never Walk Alone release and it concerned that LP. At that price, it would take 6,040,000 units to be awarded 3xPlatinum. Cassettes and 8-tracks, representing about 15% of the market, were sold at $4,98. These albums also sold a lot of units from 1973 to the 80s at Pickwick, with list prices being already much higher, reaching $5,98 by the end of this period. By the time the album was first issued in CD in 1987, the price was already on $8,98.

This evolution of price explains why even an album that had all its sales under budget lines like the 1970 Christmas Album only had roughly 10% of its units unaccounted for. It’s also true for an album like You’ll Never Walk Alone which sold well through the years. For an album like I Got Lucky yet, with very low catalog appeal, a larger share of its units were shifted early when the price was still low. That’s why it went from uncertified in 1999 to Platinum in 2011.

Post-1972 albums

You possibly noticed that I highlighted in blue 3 albums from the Camden list. These records were issued after 1972 so pricing rules still apply for them. They are the two Hits From His Movies volumes as well as Separate Ways. As of now, they all likely have a decent share of sales that can’t be accounted for, although they wouldn’t be enough to bring them to higher criteria even if they were made eligible. Of course, for each new sale they may achieve today, that will rehabilitate formerly excluded sales.

A good example of that situation is Frankie & Johnny, released through Follow that Dream in 2003. With a list price of $33,64, each 10,000 units sold gross enough extra dollars to validate 46,062 sales formerly excluded. This dynamic also explains the 2011 award of Mahalo from Elvis. A few sales through iTunes or from imports Amazon – that will be proportionally high for an album unavailable at retail for very long – have been enough to request a Gold award for this 1978 record formerly released by Pickwick at budget price.

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