How many records has Elvis actually sold? Did he really sell one billion records as has been frequently claimed?
Ten years ago I researched this subject in depth with help from Ernst Jorgensen and through him Sony BMG and compiled a comprehensive report, which was published on this site.
The following updated version has been considerably shortened, where possible, in the interests of brevity.
To some extent, as I have said before, this continues to be a work in progress, but the likelihood of more information on the question of international sales outside the USA emerging after all these years are remote. It is, after all, over 40 years since he died. But the pace at which Elvis continues to shift product off the shelves - has not been diminished by the years. Elvis fans still prefer to have something physical in their hands, rather than a download. His album chart positions continue to emphasize that.
It seems that pretty well everybody in the business used to exaggerate the achievements of their clients – if only because everyone else was doing the same. Bing Crosby's disc sales, were once upon a time, estimated by his record company on the basis of a somewhat quirky analysis of his sheet music sales and those of the Beatles were, for years, inflated on the rather quixotic grounds that the sale of each one of their albums should be considered as equivalent to six singles. By now, I suspect that most fans realize that Elvis Presley's sales figures have also not been immune to the odd spot of massaging over the years. Elvis did not sell 1 billion records by 1982, which claim first appeared via an article in the 'Washington Post' dated 12 July of that year and quoted RCA as its source. My original investigations revealed that Elvis was by some distance the greatest record seller of all time and ten years on it is that much easier to make a case for the claim that he has sold over a billion copies of his records. As a past Chief Executive of RCA Records (Mike Ormansky) once remarked - 'it's not even close'………
So what happened? Why was the 1982 claim ever made? Well it seems that around five years after Elvis died, a former Radio Luxembourg DJ, by the name of Don Wardell, took over from Joan Deary as the product manager in charge of the Elvis catalogue at RCA. And it was during his watch that the 'Washington Post' claim first began to appear on the back of Elvis albums and in press releases. Somebody else in the old RCA backroom may have initially dreamt up the figures, but it was Don Wardell who publicised them and thus must bear the responsibility. When sometime later, after BMG took over RCA, the new team tried and failed to elicit any kind of rational explanation from Don Wardell, it swiftly became apparent to them that he hadn't got one.
Over the last decade the media have put pressure on the record companies to provide more details of their various claims, with the result that some of them have been revised, only to be replaced by statistics that do not differentiate as between actual physical sales and downloads.
The problem remains the sales of records outside the USA. Nevertheless there is still sufficient, if largely circumstantial evidence available, to enable a researcher to arrive at some sort of ballpark figure. Since no global certification process common to all artists exists, that is all that can be done anyway, whoever we are talking about. That will never change.
Right from the start of my original research, it became evident that RCA's assertion that Elvis' US sales accounted for about 60% of the total, were simply not borne out by the market evidence past or present. And that opinion was backed by Ernst Jorgensen, who should know if anyone does. I tracked the origin of this estimate back to the 1972/3 negotiations, which eventually led to the buyout of Elvis' back catalogue. So whether RCA simply looked at the total sales figures up to that point, current sales, or probably both, the conclusions reached may have been the same. However the 1972/3 Elvis record sales in the US were particularly heavy because of the combined impact of Aloha, the 'On Tour' film, the Madison Square Garden concert, the first greatest hit package, and the number one single, 'Burning Love' and so for a time US sales bucked the trend, which had very clearly been heading in the direction of overseas markets for some time before that.
There is no question that the American share of the global market had been in steady decline for several decades - dating back to the time that some countries as far apart as Brazil and Japan, first began to embrace Western music and culture. This is clearly demonstrated by the total global musical sales for the year 2005, which I continue to use, and with figures cast in billions of dollars, reads as follows:
1 USA 7.0
2 Japan 3.7
3 UK 2.2
4 Germany 1.4
5 France 1.2
6 ROW 5.3
Total USA share of market 33.7% (Note: it is probably down to 25% now)
Rest of the World 66.3%.
It doesn't come much more conclusive than that. So the next question then turns on whether Elvis' sales conformed to this pattern.
In fact whilst a fifties classic such as 'Hound Dog' may well have initially sold twice as many copies in the States, as it did elsewhere - which as only the Americans had developed a consumer based society by that stage, should hardly come as a surprise - it is plain from what we do know that subsequently anything up to 70% of the sales of later singles were sold overseas. In Europe alone, virtually all the big Presley hits from 'It's Now or Never' onwards, more than matched US sales and there is a wealth of evidence, including comments made by some of the songwriters concerned, which are available to prove this. Indeed not only did the 1974/5 single 'My Boy' actually sell more copies (450,000) in the UK than it did in the States, but a 1970/71 single 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me' did likewise in Japan.
More recent and better-documented data adds even more grist to the mill and demonstrates that the picture with Presley records was and is indeed very much in keeping with market trends. Sales of such albums as 'ELV1S 30 #1 Hits' (2002), 'If I Can Dream' ( 2015 ), 'The Wonder of You' (2016), 'Christmas with the RPO' (2017) and just recently 'Where No One Stands Alone' (2018) all underline my point.
Back in the eighties, RCA were saying much the same thing. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the last album released during his lifetime, '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, then it would seem that less than 4 million of those were actually sold to the home market.
As for singles thanks to the songwriters we know how the sales split in some cases - for example in 1969/70 when 'The Wonder of You' sold exactly 995,000 copies in the USA and some 2,200,000 overseas. It was pretty much the same with 'Don't Cry Daddy'.
The exception to the picture I have painted is Elvis' gospel music, which for many decades has found particular favour with the strong Christian movement in the States. The recent international sales of 'Where No One Stands Alone' may be the first gospel album to suggest that this may no longer be the case.
Domestically the indications are that the sales of Elvis records has over the last ten years, together with the discovery of historic sales, pushed up the overall total from about 400 million records to an current figure of 430 million copies - which can be broken down and in much simply form than before as follows:
Summary of American Sales from 1954-2018 Millions sold
RIAA certified sales 205
Awaiting certification 5
Sales above/between certification levels * 75
Sales below minimum certification levels* 70
Other sales** 65
Total 430 million
* The RIAA only certify sales which reach defined levels and, therefore, sales below their radar screen and between one level and the next level - don't count in their statistics. Based on the figures in front of him Ernst Jorgensen was able, with the help of Sony, to determine what this meant in sales terms and few have disputed the rationale behind the maths. The sales below minimum certification levels are less easy for me to justify since I have not been fortunate to see the complete list - only such selected items as Ernst felt able to pass onto me. But they were enough. It is clear that no worldwide Elvis release, whether a long playing album or single, has sold less than half a million, including the most forgettable single, which must surely be 1965's 'Do the Clam' (900,000).
Further Sony/RCA have released more than 250 uncertified albums in the USA alone (including Record Club only issues) over the years, some of which may only have sold as little as 50,000 copies apiece– but they all add up.
** It is true that sales returns for many individual titles particularly between March 1973 and January 1976 and August 1977 and August 1978 are incomplete because of computer problems and changes - but RCA still have an audited record of the overall annual, albeit unallocated figures for that period. So, as I have come to appreciate - it is a bit misleading to say that there are actually any 'missing' or 'lost 'sales. The evidence is there - just not broken down to enable certification by individual title, correctly required under the RIAA rules.
**It appears that immediately the 1973 royalty buyout came into force RCA stopped issuing either Elvis or the Colonel with sales figures, relating to any of his records released before 1/3/1973. Why this led to some confusion over what was and what was not recorded on the old RCA computer may be a bit of a red herring. We no longer need to make a song and dance over so-called lost sales.
** In addition after the 1973 buyout and right up to the present day, literally dozens and dozens of heavily promoted Elvis compilations were released through other outlets, under special license. No less than a staggering 30 or so major independent labels operating in the mail order sphere, have been involved at one time or, not to mention untold numbers of smaller scale regional enterprises. Time-Life, alone, was responsible for some 20 extensively promoted national releases, all of which sold heavily. Again there may be some genuine lost sales here, because of incomplete returns to RCA, but I think we can ignore them.
There are a number of other points to be made at this juncture namely:
Certification of record sales requires documentation not of any actual sales sheets, but of the shipping invoices sent to the distributor and the returns of unsold discs made to the supplier. Such a requirement can obviously be that much more, if any third parties with little or no interest in the subject are involved in the process.
The RIAA certify all sales of a disc including re-releases, whether or not there has been a change in the catalogue number, provided the inclusion of any additional tracks, does not bring the total to more than 17.
In 1959 RCA put total sales at 50 million; in 1960/1 75 million; in 1964/5- 125 million; in 1970 - 250 million, in 1976 - 400 million and at death a bit over 450 million, which the media rounded up to 500 million. Although these figures should be treated with a certain degree of caution, it was only when Elvis died that things appeared to really go awry.
It is not generally appreciated, that during the 1950's Elvis probably sold more extended play albums, than he did long-playing albums. Given the technology of the day, EP's were simply easier to handle and also less costly.
Sales in the year following Elvis' death may still account for more than one in five of the total. Some idea of the scale involved actually emerged through the 1977/8 interim and the final audited record company reports.
The sheer number of regional releases made around the globe makes it impossible to detail international sales by title. Many achieved truly staggering sales figures. For example little Denmark purchased an incredible 150,000 copies of a 1968 release entitled 'A Portrait in Music'; whilst in 1974 the double album '40 Greatest Hits' shattered every known speed sales record previously set in the UK. A German-inspired release entitled 'Elvis Forever' and its successors swept Europe around 1975/6 and did exactly the same. The rapid increase in demand for Presley product in the lucrative South East Asia, during the early seventies, was the main driving force behind the sponsorship of the initial live telecast of the 'Aloha' special in 1973.
It would seem that the growth of sales in overseas markets - reflected in the success of such records as 'It's Now or Never' - generally began to take off around about the time Elvis was demobbed from the army in 1960. The statistics show that in the UK market, for example, overall sales of records had climbed from 66 million units in 1959 to over 100 million by 1964.
In the case of Elvis other indicators include:
# 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). Singles released since Elvis died have consistently done better overseas e.g. 'A Little Less Conversation' (2002), 'Rubberneckin' (2003) etc. However no Elvis singles have been released in years.
# In several key overseas markets some sales were documented and certified - even as far back as the 1950s. In the UK, for example, the now long moribund 'Disc and Music Echo' pop magazine had, by the time it folded, awarded Elvis around two dozen silver discs-currently assumed to be lurking in the vaults - each for AUDITED sales of over 250,000 copies.
# In 1987 RCA gave Graceland a somewhat baffling award which listed no less than 48 million selling titles, that for the most part had not gained due recognition for past sales. The titles included a HOST of mid-sixties soundtrack albums and mid-seventies singles, which even today, have failed to achieve domestic ie US certification. That can only mean that the majority of these sales had been accrued from foreign parts.
All this evidence seems to point towards an overall international sales figure, that at the very least is the equal of the domestic haul and almost certainly, I would suggest, much greater than that. In the last ten years the differential between Elvis' US and overseas sales has widened to the point whereby there really is no argument about it. Elvis Presley's UK sales are now well in excess of 50 million and therefore past the total achieved globally in 1959. Makes you blink a bit to think of that.
RCA/Sony did once try to get their overseas outlets to send in their sales stats, but this request was misconstrued. The outlets simply sent in awards for their biggest Elvis hit album by way of a gold or platinum disc. However a trawl through these awards at least gives one a clear indication of where Elvis' main sales lie. And the picture is truly global. You might expect English speaking countries to predominate, and to some extent they do, but what is surprising is his popularity in for example South America and South East Asia. The music of Elvis Presley simply transcended language barriers in a way no other singer could do.
When I wrote my original article over a decade ago it was not without a degree of trepidation. But whatever doubts I had about my conclusions have all but vanished with the passage of time. Elvis has sold a billion records. Minimum.
But I end with my old plea……..
This endless Beatles v Elvis debate should end.
How can you sensibly compare a group of people to one especially when their music is as different as chalk and cheese? Whereas Elvis' claim to musical prowess was based on the magnificent instrument that was his voice allied to the sheer scale of his vision and his extraordinary interpretative powers, that of the Beatles rests on their superb songwriting skills, craftsmanship and inventiveness. In more ways than one these two greats came from a different place. Let the last word go to Paul McCartney himself. After he visited Graceland recently Paul was interviewed about his experience and he was quoted as saying' I used to think that it was us (the Beatles) who sold the most records, but I have seen the evidence for myself and there is no doubt it is Elvis'.
Written and researched by Nick Keene with help from Ernst Jorgensen and source's at Sony Music for Elvis Australia.
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