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 Elvis' Record Sales - 1977/8
 
Brian Quinn
post Dec 26 2011, 03:29 PM
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At The Gates Of Graceland
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ELVIS’ 1977-1978 RECORD SALES

There have been many myths surrounding the sales rush that happened after Elvis died. Sales figures mentioned were twenty million sold the day after he died (or the week after he died) depending on what source you read. The other popular figure mentioned was that 100,000,000 records were sold the year after he died. Is there is any truth in these figures, or are they just plucked from the mind of a journalist with an over-active imagination? I will give a brief summary here on what I have found relating to the sales surge that happened after Elvis died.

Firstly, it is important to remember that in the weeks before Elvis died, there would have been no more that a couple of million Elvis albums on the shelves in U.S. record stores. ‘MOODY BLUE’ had just been released and it was doing the usual business for an Elvis album at that time. RCA would have had about 500,000 copies of this album put out and 300,000 of them had already been sold by the middle of August. My own conclusion is that the sales from this period, on the evidence that I have seen, are probably ‘THE GREATEST SELLING TOTAL OVER SUCH A SHORT PERIOD OF TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RECORDED MUSIC’. The evidence, leaving aside the myths, is for the most part circumstantial, but like a giant jigsaw puzzle, a definite picture emerges when you put it all together.

One of the myths that has come out of this period is that RCA were caught totally unaware by Elvis’ death and had nothing prepared or no strategy in place. While the release pattern seems to bear this out, in hindsight RCA continued to follow the same pattern and release policy they pursued when he was alive, in the three years after Elvis died. The new releases were not inspiring in content or presentation, a similar situation to the years just before Elvis died. RCA reacted to Elvis’ death in the way that they knew best, by dealing with it in an economic commercial way, providing their shareholders with their best return since the mid-sixties. While RCA said that they would not overly exploit Elvis’ passing with a deluge of new albums, they nevertheless flooded the market with Elvis’ back catalogue, maintaining that this was their intention before Elvis died anyway. It was the best of all worlds for RCA, no promotion needed for new albums, covers and sleeve designs already in existence and no payments to the ESTATE or to musicians for the use of new material.

There is the much mentioned figure of 20,000,000 records sold in the U.S.A. the day after Elvis died (16th August, 1977). This would not have been possible given the fact that there may have only been 2-3,000,000 Elvis albums on the shelves, including the PICKWICK releases. What did happen from August 17th is that RCA were inundated with orders from just about every source, to the extent that seven days after his death, RCA had received orders for a little over fourteen million Elvis albums, while PICKWICK RECORDS accumulated orders for another five million albums. This information came from a U.S. book on the history of the U.S. recording industry and the source quoted was RCA President at that time, LOUIS COUTOLENC. This huge demand for Elvis product was unheard of in the history of the recording industry, and only for the fact that the orders were spread over fifty-two titles, we would have had, perhaps, the largest selling albums of all time if RCA had concentrated on just the current releases. The demand presented RCA with major logistical problems as they had been withdrawing from the record manufacturing side of the industry in an effort to streamline costs. However, a report in BILLBOARD MAGAZINE dated 3rd September, 1977, states "RCA is finding itself literally hard-pressed to keep up with unabating demand for LP's, tapes and singles. Its vertically integrated Indianapolis operation has been running seven days, 24 hours, pressing all 50 LP's in the catalog, as well as producing tapes and singles. While no detailed figures on either shipments or sales of exact titles will be available from the label until next week at the earliest - with all available outside pressing facilities used - reliable industry sources indicate about 20 million units being shipped weekly on all Presley product in the U.S. for RCA." Stan LEWIS, veteran record distributor in Shreveport, La., who also owns a one-stop operation and six local retail stores, says his entire stock of 25,000 albums, singles and tapes sold out in one day. He ordered 150,000 more tapes, singles and albums; it took him four hours to get through to RCA's sales office in New York because of other distributor calls.

One of their largest pressing plants, ROCKAWAY, was closed in the middle of 1973 and their major West Coast plant at HOLLYWOOD was closed in 1976. They did have, however, the largest pressing plant in the country at INDIANAPOLIS, with the capacity to ship 250,000 albums a day. RCA immediately started to operate this plant in a treble shift rotation, six days a week, and I believe that based on reports from VARIETY/BILLBOARD magazines and books like ‘WHEN ELVIS DIED’ (that deals factually with the issue), that this plant managed to output some 3,000,000 albums a week until early December, when it cut back to a single shift again. Based on this information, the INDIANAPOLIS pressing plant sent over thirty million albums onto the market between August and December. What is absolutely definite is that the INDIANAPOLIS plant switched totally over to Elvis product until the end of March, 1978, as confirmed in a January 1979 RCA Shareholders financial Review of 1978. As much as INDIANAPOLIS was turning out, it wasn’t enough, and RCA were forced to cancel their entire Country and Western new release catalogue until the Spring of 1978, which was estimated to be approximately 40% of total country music sales. By the start of September, RCA were forced by sheer demand for Elvis product to source outside pressing capacity and they had to commission upwards of twenty-five to thirty plants based mainly in the Southern U.S.A. to manufacture selected Elvis albums. The generally agreed figure by most Elvis books and BILLBOARD MAGAZINE was forty to forty-two pressing plants which were producing Elvis product between September, 1977 and July, 1978. I have come across the names of about eighteen plants from books and magazines, and in many cases the album can tell you where it came from. It must be said that the great majority of these pressing plants were small capacity independents, catering mainly for the country market. Most were outputting 10,000 – 20,000 albums a day, but between these plants and the plant at INDIANAPOLIS, upwards of fifty million albums were put onto the U.S. market in the six months after Elvis died.

Probably the best book detailing what happened after Elvis died was written by NEAL and JANICE GREGORY called ‘WHEN ELVIS DIED’ (ISBN 0 89461 032 5). This book describes the reaction from all forms of media, as well as general fan reaction, and more importantly detailing the demand for Elvis records in the months that followed his death. This book provides the circumstantial evidence making the case for the surge in Elvis’ record sales after his death. For instance, it reports that the DALLAS office of RCA took $250,000 of trade orders to supply local record stores the night Elvis died, which approximates to120,000 albums. Just one wholesaler in IOWA ordered 42,000 copies of ‘MOODY BLUE’ the following day. STAN LEWIS, a retailer who owned six record stores in the State of LOUISIANA stated to BILLBOARD MAGAZINE that his entire stock of 25,000 albums sold out in a day and he struggled to contact RCA regional offices to order 150,000 more. RCA on the West Coast were struggling to fill the orders that were coming in and dispatched an executive to Canada with the instructions to purchase as many albums as he could from RCA across the border. Elvis’ death was THE major news story for seventy-two hours in the States and the media frenzy fed the sales rush for Elvis albums, the more the story was covered, the more the demand for his records. RCA could not have got this publicity in a million years and they were to try their hardest to satisfy public demand. HERBERT HELMAN, Vice-President of RCA Records, was quoted in an interview with BILLBOARD MAGAZINE, that they had managed to ship nearly 8,000,000 albums and two million singles in the first ten days after Elvis died, but this he said would be nowhere near enough to cope with incoming orders. In the book, 'WHEN ELVIS DIED' it states that 1977 was the best year in RCA’s fiscal history up to that time, with earnings of $247 million as well as sales of $5.9 billion. This represented a 40% improvement over 1976, in a year where just about every division bar the record section, reported a downturn. While not giving details of the Elvis contribution, it is implicit in their text that the overwhelming factor in that year’s success was the sale of Elvis’ back catalogue.

For five days after Elvis died, the INDIANAPOLIS plant pressed 250,000 copies of the ‘MOODY BLUE’ album per day and then still managed to press a third of that figure for the following four weeks. In total it seems INDIANAPOLIS pressed a little over 4,000,000 copies of this album up to February, 1978, to add to the 400,000 already in print before Elvis died. The RIAA have only given Elvis a DOUBLE PLATINUM award for this album, so where have the other 2,500,000 copies gone to, along with the thirty-two years of continuous availability, plus the change over to CD? It would seem that the bones of 3,000,000 sales have gone walkabout with this album alone. Even the U.S. Army was not immune to the frenzy, as the ARMY and AIRFORCE EXCHANGE CENTRE ordered an initial 35,000 albums to distribute to army personnel overseas. PAUL RANDALL, an RCA Executive in Nashville, claimed in a BILLBOARD MAGAZINE interview that eight million plus Elvis albums were sold retail in the five days after Elvis died and back orders by the beginning of November still stretched well into the new year. A BILLBOARD MAGAZINE editorial claimed that Elvis was solely responsible for the revival of the worldwide music industry and went on to say that the combined efforts of all the pressing plants producing Elvis records were shipping twenty million albums a week!!!!!

The ATLANTA JOURNAL quoted a local record distributor, MICHAEL ASKINS of BEAR FAMILY RECORDS, who was ecstatic to secure 150,000 albums from RCA for the Atlanta area and he went on to say that he did not know how he would be able to service the rest of Georgia. BILLBOARD MAGAZINE had literally dozens of features on the sales explosion and commented that in the country market, nearly one in every two albums purchased between August and October were Elvis titles, a quite remarkable feat they said. Another BILLBOARD MAGAZINE feature claimed in an interview with an unnamed RCA Executive, that by January, 1978, RCA had sold or licensed over 70,000,000 Elvis albums!!!!! Unfortunately I have neither a name or the date that the article was printed, all I saw was an online copy of the page it was printed on but the date was obscured. Other sales related articles appeared in the ‘PHILADELPHIA ENQUIRER/THE NASHVILLE BANNER/THE LOS ANGELES TIMES/THE MEMPHIS PRESS SCIMITAR/THE CHICAGO SUN TIMES/THE BOSTON GLOBE and THE CLEVELAND PRESS’, all detailing both local as well as national sales phenomena. For example, in LOS ANGELES, most local music retailers agreed to ration sales of Elvis albums to two per person, well into September. A report in ‘THE BOSTON GLOBE’ claimed that RCA Head Office put office staff to work loading boxes of albums onto lorries and interestingly said that the paperwork would have to wait till the rush was over. Sales appeared to be fairly even throughout the country with the only exception being some urban areas in the big cities where the mainly black population had for the most part, turned their backs on Elvis a generation earlier. Smaller labels that sold a handful of Elvis interview albums a month, now found that they were being inundated with orders in the tens of thousands. The Tennessee based ‘GREEN VALLEY RECORDS’ found that sales of an album they produced called ‘ELVIS SPEAKS TO YOU’ had sky-rocketed into the stratosphere with orders well into the high six figures coming in. They were used to a pressing of 2-5,000 albums at a time.

All the statements above are only snapshots of what happened in the weeks and months after Elvis died, but they do make, nevertheless, a compelling circumstantial case that sales of Elvis albums in the year after he died did indeed rocket towards the 100,000,000 mark. We are perhaps destined to never really know the full extent of these sales unless some time in the future RCA records for that period are made publicly available. There are strong reasons why this will probably not happen any-time soon. The vexed question of royalties due to the Estate, plus the shenanigans of Colonel PARKER when dealing with RCA is a poisoned chalice that even the Estate do not want to drink from. The only definite fact that I can truly state, is that the paltry return of PLATINUM and GOLD awards given to Elvis for sales of product during this historic and incredible sales rush is derisory to put it mildly. In 1980, ‘THE WASHINGTON POST’ reported that industry sources attributed sales of one billion records worldwide to Elvis, which at the time was twice that of Paul McCartney (Beatles and Wings combined). They went on to say that a Plaque was presented to RCA to mark this feat. Now call me naive, but Elvis today is still reported to have sold a billion records worldwide, nearly thirty two years after this was reported to have been the case. Are we to believe that record industry mentors were unable to count in 1980 or did they just confirm all that happened in the couple of years after Elvis died. I have also gathered sales data from this vital period for countries all over the world and a figure of one hundred and fifty million would not be a major exaggeration in my opinion. However, for now I will leave this subject with a quote from BILLBOARD MAGAZINE in a November 16th, 1977 issue that stated “the continued demand for anything Elvis is accounting for a third of all U.S. albums sold’.

On a final note, MICHAEL OMANSKY - Senior Vice President (BMG) in a letter to me dated September 23rd, 1999 on being asked who had sold the most records Elvis or The Beatles his reply was, and I quote, "We have nothing to prove of our sales versus the Beatles. It's not close".... Elvis is the largest seller of records of all time." Further, in an article in the Milwaukee Journal dated 30th July, 2001, OMANSKY stated the following "RCA's marketing philosophy with Elvis is a decided contrast to EMI/Capitol's management of the Beatles catalogue. Where new Beatles products are rare but sell in multi-platinum figures, RCA releases several new Elvis albums a year, which sell more slowly but steadily. Of those 70-odd Elvis albums in print, more than one-third are boxed sets. The Beatles are on capitol/EMI, but the record company doesn't control the product. The Beatles do. Conversely, we control the Elvis product. The Beatles had more control over what EMI did. When EMI did have something to go after, since it was less frequent, they'd go after it in a bigger way. When you add it all up, Elvis has actually sold more records than the Beatles."

I thought I would reproduce the above from my records, especially with the new found interest in Elvis' record sales/awards. Whether the information is accurate I cannot say but I hope it gives a 'feel' for the sales frenzy which took place following Elvis' death with the possibility of his being 'shortchanged' by many millions of sales because of poor record keeping.

Brian

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NightRider
post Dec 26 2011, 05:49 PM
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Fascinating read Brian, thank you for posting it.

The way RCA handled/recorded Elvis' sales is nothing short of scandalous. With them, its always only been about the money and no thought into putting Elvis where he deserved/deserves to be.

I was pleased to read that at least in some cases, the records are being put straight. But far too few and far between. I am in no doubt whatsoever about the who is the biggest selling artist of all time. I don't believe that there can possibly be anyone even close.


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TCB Chris

You may think that its the breeze...whistling through the lonely trees..but its only him a flyin' round the bend...
as the day comes to an end.........

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