Elvis Presley’s US RIAA album certifications

elvis presley

A lot has been said about Elvis Presley‘s sales awards. Fact is, even when they are 100% official like the RIAA certifications, they are often largely misunderstood. Various parameters like the price, the number of discs, the running time, the year of release and the content of reissues are unknown or wrongly interpreted. It is about time to get a true in-depth receipt about this information!

Articles Elvis Presley’s discography puzzle and Destroying Myths: related to Elvis Presley mentioned a lot of insights related to RIAA certifications eligibility rules. We are left wondering how they apply to each and every release of the rock legend. The below table provides you the conclusion with all awards and their related interpretation. Please find additional clarifications at the bottom of the list.

  • Units certified refers to the total number of discs that have been certified
  • Multi-disc eligible takes into account the various running time rules
  • Albums certified refers to the total number of packages that have been certified independently of the number of discs they contain
  • $ volume issue points out albums which possibly needed more units to be sold than the number certified in order to met the dollar volume criteria
  • Extra units to meet $ criteria estimates (see below) how many extra units were needed
  • Details of the Real mean are explained on this page

To keep in mind

  • Information listed portrays the situation in place at the RIAA as of the date of each certification, for example, all pre-1972 albums would have no more price-excluded sales if upgraded anew
  • All expanded reissues are eligible (inc. FTD) to be certified along their original version
  • Box sets sales are eligible for stand-alone album as soon as it has its proper disc
  • Sales of “2 on 1” CDs are not eligible for stand-alone albums
  • For simplicity purpose mid-point and real mean values just add the pricing issues amount
  • Certifications dated from 2018 may include TEA (Track Equivalent Albums) and SEA (Streaming Equivalent Albums)
  • Please forgive me if a typo found home on that table, that will be fixed as soon as pointed out!

Key statistics

  • 101 albums certified: 44 Gold, 32 Platinum, 24 Multi-Platinum, 1 Diamond
  • 139 million units certified
  • 114,76 million albums certified
  • An estimated 2,92 million units disqualified as of the date of each of these awards due to pricing issues
  • The mathematical expected sales value of these 101 packages is 139,5 million
  • Presley has a further 7,5 million sales of EPs certified that fall under the albums all-time list of the RIAA, bringing his units tally to 146,5 million

Calculation of Extra units to meet $ criteria

While most RIAA rules are fairly clear, the one related to the dollar volume remains difficult to interpret. The main guide line is easy: an album must make $2 for every unit sold. That gross is estimated with one third of the suggested list price. There comes the issue: the RIAA never clarified which suggested list price is used. The list price from the release date? The one in place as per the catalog of the label when the certification happens? A unique price or a specific one for each format? The real suggested list price for each sale?

As the RIAA doesn’t explain this point, the best is to stick with the spirit of the rule and try to model the real suggested list price and how it evolved through the years. It requires to involve estimations for two reasons. The first is that not all suggested list prices are known. For example, I can tell you the initial price of the debut LP Elvis Presley was $3,98, but how and when that evolved week after week until now? It’s impossible to tell. Also, these albums were released on various formats, each one priced differently. Without knowing the actual sales distribution per format of each album, we can’t define the exact dollar volume as defined by the RIAA.

I went through a lot of documentation to model this problem. Please find below some relevant information in the case of Presley:

  • RCA mono LPs remained $3,98 until disappearing
  • RCA Stereo LPs were $4,98
  • RCA Stereo LPs market share against mono LPs went from 0% in 1957 to 100% about a decade later, growing 10% per year on average
  • RCA Soundtrack albums were sold $1 higher than RCA pop albums ($4,98 mono, $5,98 stereo)
  • In March 1971, all RCA prices were upped by $1
  • RCA double albums were priced $2 higher, for example Aloha was listed at $7,98 against the norm of $5,98 by then
  • RCA Camden LPs were listed at $2,98 from 1972 to 1975, cassettes and tapes at $4,98
  • LPs represented 75% of US album sales through the 70s, cassettes and tapes 25%
  • Pickwick LPs were listed at $4,98 from 1972 to 1975, cassettes and tapes at $5,98
  • Pickwick format share was 85% for LPs, 15% for cassettes
  • Double LPs by Brookville were priced $7,98 for LPs, $9,98 for cassettes
  • Candlelite box sets were priced $29.98
  • CD reissues were much more expensive, from $6,98 for budget albums to $16,98

A simple example of application

Elvis in Hollywood was issued by Brookville Records in 1976. It was a double LP, also available on tape, and went Platinum in 2010. Since it was released after 1971, the RIAA requires it to reach both the unit and the dollar volume criteria. That is, 1 million discs sold and $2 million volume for Platinum. The dollar volume is based on a third of the suggested list price, in other words it had to reach $6 million in combined suggested list price to be Platinum.

The album sold all its copies in 1976-1978, it was never reissued in CD. The market was split 75-25 between LPs and tapes, each one being respectively priced $7,98 and $9,98. The formula is:

Dollar volume / (LP price * LP share + Tape price * Tape share)
6 million / (7,98 * 0,75 + 9,98 * 0,25) = 707,547 albums (= 1,415,094 units)

Although it has been certified for sales of only 500,000 albums, Elvis in Hollywood needed an estimated 707,547 sales to be awarded with a Platinum plaque in 2010.

Using a similar approach on the 1973’s Elvis Commemorative Album – factoring in a 1978 125,000 units reissue by RCA – tells us it had to sell an estimated 3,390,625 units to hit 5xPlatinum, making it the only under-certified Presley album in terms of units as of July 2018.

Cases of these two Brookville albums are very simple since their list prices are known and they were never reissued in CD. Similarly the level of confidence in calculations is high for Camden releases and albums last awarded during the 60s. For readiness purpose, I squared their extra units needed to meet the dollar criteria inside the table.

Don’t take unsquared values too seriously. They concern albums with possible but uncertain pricing issues since they have been certified after the release of plenty of versions under various prices. It only takes small changes to the model to see their number of units excluded fall to 0, same if the RIAA used the current suggested list price when updating them. On top of that, chances are that even if sales have been excluded in 1992/1999 audits, the expensive reissues rehabilitated them by now. Thus, numbers in $-related columns aren’t a big deal for them, instead you should read that these albums likely sold more than just over their number of units certified back then.

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