Chris Dampier

Casting an eye on all things music.

Archive for the ‘Music Industry’ Category

Everything you wanted to know about record sales

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I stumbled across this a couple weeks back. Its an interview conducted by Bill Wyman over at with a french cat named Guillaume Vieira. Inspired by the figures being thrown around regarding the sales of Michael Jackson, it goes onto cover the most successful recording artists in general. Bill initially presumed Guillaume must of been working for Sony considering the data on offer but it turns out he is not in the business at all. He’s a music fan that has spent a few years collating information from various press releases, billboard stories and sales data. It makes for an interesting read if your into that kinda thing.

Hitsville: Thanks for taking the time to talk about this. What’s your experience in collecting worldwide sales figures? They are notoriously difficult to discern, aren’t they?

Guillaume Vieira: Figures are difficult to discern in the beginning, but I faced enough of them to discern them immediately and quite easily now. I’ve checked charts, certifications and officially reported sales of over 10,000 albums in the last six years. When a figure is said to have been officially reported but hasn’t, I know it instantly. As I said, it is easy for me—I already know all the figures that have been really reported.

Hitsville: As you’ve no doubt noticed, the New York Times after Michael Jackson’s death stated flatly that he had sold 750 million records worldwide, and that Thriller had sold an “estimated” 100 million. Every other news outlet in the land, not to mention the indefatigable U.S. cable channels, cited similar figures. Are they accurate? What’s your best estimate about Thriller?

Vieira: The figure of “over 100 million” for Thriller came out, just like the figure of 750 million for Jackson, in November 2006 at World Music Awards. The last reported figure by Sony was 54 million worldwide, during the HIStory era, while the Guinness Book of World Records reported Thriller at “over 50 million” worldwide. In 2006, his management team reported it sold 104 million worldwide—54 million in the US according to the RIAA and 50 million elsewhere according to Guinness!

Thriller indeed sold over 28 million copies in the US. It was a giant blockbuster there (37 weeks #1). But to sell 100 million it would have to be even more successful in every other market than in the US, which represents 40 percent of international sales. It was for sure a blockbuster, but that much was simply not possible!

In UK, its shipment is up to 4,12 million copies with last week’s sales.

In France, it sold a record breaking 3,3 million copies (1,8 million by Feb 1984 according to Billboard; 2,5 million by 1988 according to SNEP—the French equivalent of the RIAA. Then we have documented sales for recent years).

Italy, 1,19 million up to 2001, published by Sony Music. Thriller 25 is Gold there, as a whole it sold 1,3 million in this country by now.

Germany, 3xPlat (1,5m**) since 1995, not many figures since that time but chart performances put it around 2 million.

Sweden, recently certified 4xPlatinum, 400,000, plus 20,000 copies for Thriller 25.

Netherlands, 800,000 copies by 1996 (8xPlatinum, highest certified album ever), by now over 1 million.

Austria, 400,000, 8xPlatinum, again highest figure ever reached (local albums included).

Belgium, 550,000, 11xPlatinum, second to Helmut Lotti’s Goes Classic only.

Spain, 500,000 by 1984, around a million currently.

In Europe, it sold close to 17 million copies. This figure is massive—more impressive than 28 million in US. Since IFPI introduced album certifications for Europe in 1994, no album ever reached even 10 million. The only one studio album that reached 10 million in Europe in the last 20 years is Dangerous, by Michael Jackson himself, released in 1991, which sold 12 million copies in the old continent. That album, regarded as half a flop in the US, is to Europe/Asia/Oceania the equivalent of Shania Twain’s Come On Over in the US—The biggest album released in the last 2 decades.

Billboard recently reported a figure of 2,5 million copies in Japan for Thriller (it sold 1,616,000 copies while charting in 83/84 alone, without counting imports, 30% of sales of foreign acts). It sold around 6,5 million in Asia.

Over a million in Australia, recently certified 14xPlatinum (980,000). In South America, it is the best selling album ever for a foreign act: more than 600,000 copies in Argentina, over 1,3 million in Brazil, 400,000 in Chile and a million in Mexico. Then over 3 million in Canada. In Africa, it sold 600,000 copies in South Africa alone, 300,000 copies in Turkey, over 2 million in the continent.

Then we only have to add figures: US 28,5m, Europe 17m, Canada 3,3m, Asia 6,5m, Latin America + Oceania 6m, Africa 2m, total around 63 million. As you can see, a lot of accurate data is actually known; the jigsaw is far from being as obscure as people may think. Give or take a maximum of 2m, this figure of 63 million is correct.

Hitsville: What’s your ballpark estimate of how many records Jackson sold worldwide?


Albums –  at least 205 million, at most 225 million
Singles – at least 105 million, at most 120 million
Digital singles – at least 19 million, at most 22 million
Music Videos – at least 14 million, at most 17 million
Ringtones – 2 million, give or take a few thousands (1,4 million in the US)

All those figures don’t include sales of the Jackson 5/Jacksons, except for Digital singles. The group sold:

Albums –  at least 45 million, at most 60 million
Singles – at least 40 million, at most 55 million

All together, that puts a ballpark at 430—500 million, but since some figures may be a bit too high, and others too low (they aren’t all in the low side or all in the high side), a more correct one would be worldwide records sales somewhere between 450 million and 480 million.

That’s around 80 million more than Elvis Presley, 40 million under the Beatles***.

Hitsville: Those are impressive figures, even if they don’t approach those big round numbers the papers were tossing about. Let’s talk about the Jackson Five for a minute. It’s funny—while I hadn’t published it, I was working on a post discussing whether the figure of 100 million sold for the Jackson Five, as is claimed, could possibly be right. To be honest, I thought it couldn’t; their heyday lasted about 18 months. In the U.S. they’re the equivalent of, say, Three Dog Night. On the other hand, I also remember Michael Jackson perhaps in the Martin Bashir documentary, recalling that as a 12-year-old he would get royalty checks of $200,000, which I thought was a large figure a) at the time and b) considering infinitesimal royalty rate the group was getting from Motown. But it makes sense if the group was selling records at those levels. Did they really sell anything like 100 million records?

Guillaume: The Jackson 5/Jacksons did sell around 100 million; they sold around 50 million of each singles and albums. But that is up to now! When that figure was first claimed in 1977, they were obviously, far, far from reaching it. That claim even supposed they were the second group reaching that milestone after the Beatles—outselling even the Rolling Stones, which was not true at all (and still isn’t!). Their single sales in the US were massive; even up to now they still are close to Madonna in this area, and outsold acts like Whitney Houston.

Hitsville: In the context of Motown, the Jacksons were the label’s 5th or 6th biggest act. As I look over a crude marker like the biggest chart acts of Billboard, its strikes me that Berry Gordy oversaw the careers of close to ten percent of the biggest acts in history. Do you have an off-the-cuff sense of how many records Motown sold?

Guillaume: Motown sales were truly gigantic in the 60s and 70s. Single sales were huge at that time and to be honest they were definitely dominating that sector. Album sales of Motown acts are very often not that impressive: First because the market wasn’t big at the time, second because their acts are more remembered for their singles than their albums in general, third because Motown releases the same hits packages again and again, cannibalizing sales of original albums. Only Stevie Wonder, and later Lionel Richie, sold loads of albums while signed by Motown. It is hard to guess the entire sales of the label (especialy since I haven’t studied several of their key acts), but let’s check a few of them:

– Jackson 5 – 70 million (not including sales of the Jacksons, who weren’t on Motown anymore)
- Michael Jackson – 20 million
- Stevie Wonder – 170 million
- Lionel Richie – 85 million
- Diana Ross/Supremes – 190 million
- Commodores – 60 million
- The Temptations – 110 million
- Marvin Gaye – 110 million
- Four Tops – 40 million
- Miracles/Smokey Robinson – 55 million

A total of 910 million – most of them were singles. With all their acts, it is safe to say the Motown label sold well over 1 billion records, which is an incredible total.

Hitsville: Now, if it’s fair to toss in the Jackson Five’s sales with Michael’s, it’s fair to toss in Paul McCartney’s with his previous band. What’s his totals compared to Jackson’s? Diana Ross’ totals as a solo artist combined with with the Supremes?

Guillaume: Diana Ross/Supremes total is ahead, not that far from 200 million records sold. Paul McCartney is the master. He sold around 170 million records on his own, added to over 500 million with the Beatles; that is over two thirds of the road to a billion! Obviously, on such a list, Michael Jackson wouldn’t be at 2, considering the three other Beatles would be ahead of him. Macca with 670m, Lennon with 620m, Harrison with 550m and Ringo with 525m, then Michael Jackson with around 465m. When we see how hard it is to sell 10 million records (and despite what most people think it has always been very hard), those numbers are from another world!

Hitsville: Janet Jackson gets overlooked sometimes in the Michael hoopla, but she is a top-tier star in her own right, isn’t she? What’s your best estimation of her worldwide sales and her ranking worldwide?

Janet sold 45 million singles and 65 million albums, which ranks her among the top 60 best selling acts ever, quite an achievement already, definitely a star on her own. She is in par with the likes Nirvana, Journey, and the Who in terms of album sales and sold many more singles than them.

Hitsville: What are the second and third best-selling albums worldwide, behind Thriller?

Guillaume: Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd, is the second-best-selling album ever. It is now up to 42 million and still selling very well year after year. It is harder to say which album is at three—a trio of soundtracks sold about the same at 40 million: Grease, Saturday Night Fever and The Bodyguard. Grease looks like having the lead yet and anyway is the one that is still selling the most so it will end at 3 sooner or later.

Jackson’s Bad ranks in the top 10 while Dangerous sits inside the top 20. Interesting to note that despite their relatively small sales in the US compared to Thriller, in the rest of the world they were almost as massive as Thriller and are among the seven and eight best-selling albums ever, along with Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, Dark Side of the Moon and the three soundtracks previously named. All those albums sold 20 to 23 million outside of the US, except Thriller, which sold close to 35 million.


Written by Chris Dampier

July 29, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Code name: Cocktail

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Thats the name given to a new collaboration between Apple and the four major labels to try and stoke digital album sales. “It’s all about recreating the heyday of the album when you would sit around with your friends looking at the artwork while you listened to the music,” one executive familiar with the initiative told the Financial Times

With the shift in buying trends from albums to a single tracks effecting revenue, naturally labels are thinking of ways to re-ignite the demand for albums that unfortunately have dwindled significantly. Its an idea thats been floating around for a while now but the thought of incorporating full album artwork  into a digital sale would have any impact is a joke, right? “It’s not just a bunch of PDFs. There’s real engagement with the ancillary stuff.” That would appear to put that worry to bed, but we didn’t really think thats all they were going to do surely?

Im sure the content will vary album by album. The general consensus however, is that in order for the new generation of consumers to be motivated to pay for a full album, more needs to be offered than just 12 or 13 mp3’s that make up an LP. There is still a market for the album, there always will be, if we were to look into demographics of album sales  Im sure the majority of buyers are older or more musically inclined than the average Joe. But what about the teeny boppers or the casual music fans whom just like a catchy song? They are quite content on paying 79p for the latest single Chris Moyles plugged this morning.

The music industry is its own worst enemy, they have got themselves into this trouble by constructing formulas to sell music which has lead to a divided industry; the Record Business and the Music Business (the first being built around popular culture the other being [real] music). Formulas are used instead of signing and developing talent based on…talent. Acts are signed on image and marketability often having never actually performed (as crazy as that might sound, its true). Think about whether  Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder or say Bob Dylan would be given a recording contract in todays climate. The problem is major labels are publicly owned companies now ran by Wall street and city professionals who have investors that need (want) immediate return on investment. 

With the “cocktail” the talk is that an interactive booklet would be included which would link to lyrics, photos, exclusive videos etc but doesn’t this sound familiar? I remember buying CD’s with extra “multimedia” content a few years ago. The average consumer doesn’t see buying just music as enough anymore. Adding live content and perhaps say a “making of” build up to the release of the album as well as a discount on merchandise and concert tickets could have positive effects. It could also work with regard to longevity, as in make people more a fan of the artist and not necessarily just the original song they heard. 

I think “Cocktail” will come into effect but not have a huge impact, it will coincide with the subscription based services through iTunes and could then be incorporated in, maybe at additional cost to the monthly fee paid (when apple follows suite).  Either way its another step in the right direction in my opinion.


Written by Chris Dampier

July 28, 2009 at 9:41 am