Destroying Myths: related to Elvis Presley

International sales

Convenient ratio

Most people digging into Presley‘s discography seem to lose steam after completing his US statistics, ending with highly questionable and gross statements for his sales abroad. The point is that his awards’ achievements are much less impressive abroad than in the US, plus remaining markets used to be much weaker with awfully low criteria. Sales totals from France, Germany, Brazil or so would look terribly unimpressive in comparison to his US numbers, putting a huge shade of doubt over the billion-ish claims. Thus, instead of reviewing his results abroad, they always go by wild US-World ratios that are backed by nothing.

Here is Galvin claim:

Even allowing for one hundred million sold in the year after Elvis died I m inclined to believe a figure of 300 to 350 million sales are far more realistic. While it is generally held that the US is responsible for two thirds of all Elvis sales I believe that the opposite is really the case. The figures that I have seen both reliable as well as speculative seem to indicate that sales outside of the US since the early eighties have been on a higher level and that brings me to believe that Elvis total world sales (albums only) are between six & seven hundred million.

He claims 300-350 million US sales which represent 1/3 (!) of his sales, implying a billion total records sales globally. What’s the take of Keene on that after his 400-million claim for the US?

All this evidence seems to point towards an overall international sales figure that at the very least now represents over 60 % of total global sales to date i.e. a minimum of 600 million copies or units once the US figure is duly adjusted.

We will see later on that the “evidences” he points out are just as false as his claims for US sales. His personal bet is set on 600 million (!) sales overseas on top of 400 million in the US, hitting 1 billion globally.

We wonder what Jorgensen, an RCA executive, has to say about that. In 2006 he stated:

It is estimated that Elvis has sold over 600 million units in the USA and over 400 million units in all other countries combined for a total of over one billion units sold worldwide.

Conveniently, while no one provides receipts for foreign sales and while they all have different figures for the US, they all add just enough to make it a billion worldwide! Please also notice that while Galvin and Keene largely acknowledge Jorgensen, they don’t hesitate to inflate even more that 400 million abroad sales claim to reach a billion.

Let’s also highlight that US sales of all Galvin, Keene and Jorgensen were massively inflated with millions of sales duplicated. These duplicated units are once again multiplied since they are extrapolated into international sales! A 40-60 ratio based on 250 million US sales instead of 400 million would conclude on 625 million, no doubt much less flashy than 1 billion. Had one of them conclude on 250 million US sales yet, chances are an argument would have been made to claim a 25-75 US-abroad sales ratio!

No official confirmation

One thing even more important to notice: Jorgensen does not commit himself on that claim. He is suiting his marketer costume, stating “it is estimated that…”. Estimated by who? How? It’s how you imply a claim without actually making it. That’s definitely clever marketing as most people won’t need more to repeat it as an absolute truth. In his second interview, from 2001, he already used the same tricks:

Elvis Information Network: Several people have claimed that the 1 billion sales figure for Elvis (and The Beatles) is based on each sale of an album being multiplied by the number of its tracks. Obviously, using this argument makes it much easier to justify a 1 billion claim. What can you tell us about this in the context of BMG’s claim that Elvis has sold more than 1 billion records & CDs?

Ernst Jorgensen: The claim was historically made by somebody else, before I was involved. I have only a vague, and not supportive idea of how they reached that number. It wasn’t by doing the above multiplication – if so, the number would be staggering (for both Beatles and Elvis)

He starts by clearly stepping out from making the famous billion sales claim. As an executive, claiming it would imply paying Presley‘s estate the due royalties about 1 billion sales even if actual sales are much lower. He continues to use his intelligence saying the total wasn’t reached “doing the above multiplication”. Indeed, it wasn’t done by multiplying album sales “by the number of its tracks”, but instead by 6. Jorgensen says nothing that is strictly false, but he voluntarily lets the reader believing something that is completely wrong. The Elvis Information Network insisted on that subject:

Elvis Information Network: The figure of 1 billion has been around for a long time now. What is BMG’s official position in 2006 on how many records & CDs Elvis has sold worldwide?

Ernst Jorgensen: I don’t know if BMG wants to have an official position on this, but I believe that 1 billion is quite likely.

Once again he goes with an “I believe that”, “is likely” after taking off his BMG executive suits. It’s as clear as water that he doesn’t want to commit on that claim since he knows it is simply wrong. The following exchanges confirm this situation:

Elvis Information Network: What is your view on once and for all “proving” the 1 billion sales claim?

Ernst Jorgensen: I think “proving” it is very unlikely. We would never be able to find substantial “new” evidence. Since we are SONY/BMG and NOT RCA Records, we only have what we inherited on buying the company in 1986. So please don’t blame it on us!!!! (ha!!)

Elvis Information Network: Since BMG bought RCA we assume there are much more detailed sales figures, at least from the late 1980s to today. Are you able to tell us how many units Elvis has sold globally since BMG acquired RCA?

Ernst Jorgensen: “We don’t make those type of comments”, these are basically “company private”. However we are always happy to report new RIAA awards.

The most global album

Jorgensen continues to suggest fake numbers on the back of unrepresentative examples. Below his statement about US/World sales:

Elvis Information Network: What percentage of these sales relate to North America ?

Ernst Jorgensen: On a normal release (“30 Number 1 Hits” as an example), total sales are 1/3 from the U.S. and 2/3 from the rest of the world.

It’s known for long that 30 #1 Hits was a global smash issued at the peak of the market in a lot of historically weak markets. It is a normal release for a label indeed, but absolutely not representative of Presley‘s sales distribution through the World. Jorgensen uses it precisely because it was his largest seller ever abroad. In the second interview, when he pointed out that “it is estimated that…” he went with 60/40 repartition, way off from this 33/67 claim that he knows to be strictly false. For reference purpose, shipments of 30 #1 Hits leaked around the same time of that interview, showing global sales of 10,072,940 units including 4,205,405 from the US. His most global release still shifted 41,75% of its units stateside rather than 33%.

These approximations and inconsistencies aren’t rare in his interviews. As a manager, his target is to promote Presley, not to provide accurate receipts. One more example is when he is challenged about sales of that 2002 compilation:

EIN: […] Is it fair to say that, as happened by the early 1990s, sales of recycled Elvis product are generally declining?

EJ: Over 12 million sold of “Elvis 30 Number 1 Hits”! If you talk about sales of original albums, they were never the best selling records.

EIN: […] Elvis was never a seller of albums on the scale of The Beatles, The Eagles, Garth Brooks or Michael Jackson (at his peak). Doesn’t this suggest there are more record buying fans of these artists than Elvis?

EJ: […] Secondly, the sales potential of music definitely has obviously escalated in recent decades. Elvis’ first album became RCA’s all-time bestseller in 1956 by selling 300,000 copies. We have had an album selling 10-12 million from just a few years ago to now. […]

EIN: The last “official” figure we saw had global sales of 30 #1’s around 10 million. So it is now globally 12 million?

EJ: I haven’t checked the number recently.

I feel like I have to be fair with Jorgensen. As an accuracy-obsessed person, I can’t help feeling my intelligence is being mocked when I read his statements full of false implicit meanings. As the responsible of Presley‘s catalog though, he is doing a wonderful job and his posture in front of media is pretty natural giving his role. He has also been key in lobbying to update the appropriate RIAA rules. His interviews are still worth reading. On top of some concrete and valuable examples he provides, he understands the mechanics of buyers and explains it well.

The outlier’s lack of representativeness

Surprisingly, or not, Keene uses exactly the same example to justify his 40-60 claim. The difference is that he does it with massively flawed data:

Sony BMG claim sales of the 2002 album ‘ELV1S 30 #1 Hits’ have now topped the 16 million mark – with a good 12 million of those sold outside the States

Please notice how he attributes the 16 million figure to Sony BMG – who in truth never claimed this fanciful figure. I can only advice one more time to be very careful with online claims arguing it is an official report from the label. More often than not, they are made up claims. This false figure enables Keene to claim only 25% of 30 #1 Hits sales come from the US when the truth is near 42%. He keeps going with similarly inaccurate data about Moody Blue:

‘Moody Blue’ was by 1982 thought to be one of the King’s top sellers with global sales put at more than 14 million copies. However once US exports to Canada are excluded and ignoring any ‘lost’ sales factor since that is pure guesswork then it would seem that less than 3 million of those were actually sold to the home market

Up to date sales of Moody Blue stand on 4 million something, nowhere near the 14 million up to 1982 claimed here. Obviously, it completely changes the US-overseas split. In terms of representativeness the usage of Moody Blue is also disastrous since Presley‘s passing made it a global event which wasn’t the case for his previous albums. It was his very first Gold album in France, his first charting LP in Italy and his biggest studio album to date in most international markets.

One more ‘evidence’ suggested by Keene to claim a high share of sales from elsewhere is records never released in the home market:

Those singles which were NEVER released in the States, but were huge hits in a wide range of countries overseas, including amongst others ‘A Mess of Blues’ (1960), ‘Wooden Heart’ (1961), ‘I Just Can’t Help Believing’ (1971) and ‘The Girl of My Best Friend’ (1976).

It’s true that these songs weren’t issued as singles in the US. This argument completely backfires into Keene though. In fact, Presley charted 139 singles in the US. Except in the UK, he came nowhere near to this number elsewhere. In concrete words, for every international hit that wasn’t released in the US there have been much more US hits that haven’t been released internationally. Keene further argues:

The exception to the picture I have painted is Presley’s gospel music which continues to find particular favour with the strong Christian movement in the States and has no parallel elsewhere.

Here the issue is that this supposed exception was more like the norm back in the day. The argument of Keene for gospel recordings is just as true for early singles, country LPs, original studio albums, Christmas releases and collectors items. To resume, abroad Presley has been big with his hits compilations, while his spectrum of success was much, much larger in the US.

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