Deconstructing Pop Culture: How Many Records Did the Beatles Actually Sell?

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COLUMN: The Fab Four once again is in the news with the announcement that remastered versions of their catalog will be available in September 2009 (source: Allan Kozinn, “Beatles Fans Await Re-Releases,” New York Times, April 8, 2009). The Beatles were Capitol Records’ most famous recording artists. Although their mercurial career spanned but a few short years in the 1960s their phenomenological impact was incalculable. Their prodigious output (some 19 albums in 7 years) remains a profound legacy of enduring artistic influence. Literally and figuratively the Beatles defined the cultural mores of a decade, affecting the attitudes, orientations and outlooks of a generation. But there still remains a nagging question – how many records did they actually sell?

David KronemyerDuring the period 1964 – 1985 the answer is 75 million (74,786,835 million to be exact). During the period 1991 – 2008 the answer is 57 million (source: SoundScan results quoted in Randy Lewis, “Beatles’ catalog will be reissued Sept. 9 in remastered versions,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2009). My informed estimate is that during the period 1986 – 1990 they sold approximately 1.5 million albums per year, for a total of approximately 7.5 million. Thus the answer to the question is approximately 139.5 million albums since 1964.

Here’s how I arrived at early sales data. In 1985 I was Vice President of Capitol Records and one of my jobs was overseeing the marketing of Beatles records in the U.S. This required more finesse than one might think because the Beatles constantly were suing Capitol (not to mention each other) over one thing or another. The nuances of the Beatles’ contracts and exactly what they were suing about is an interesting topic in its own right. But for right now I’d like to concentrate on sales. The table summarizes net U.S. sales of Beatles albums during the period 1964 – 1985 and the figure visually depicts the same information. Beatles sales comprised some 25% – 30% of Capitol’s total sales during this period.

Beatles sales chart

It’s possible to derive some tentative conclusions from this data.

First, sales generally declined after 1975, only to be resuscitated in 1980 and 1981 by the unfortunate death of John Lennon. Sales reached an all-time low in 1983, improving only slightly in 1984 and 1985.

Second, the sales and returns behavior of the band’s last album of new material resembled most conventional pop product in that it had a short product life cycle. It was shipped heavy on initial release only to confront subsequent returns and much lower sales. “Rarities,” released in March 1980, had gross U.S. sales of 380 thousand units in the first 15 weeks following its release – approximately 80% of its total gross sales at the end of 52 weeks. Returns at the end of 52 weeks were approximately 13% of gross sales. After that net sales scarcely were sufficient to justify the album’s continued inclusion in the active catalog. This high degree of sales velocity indicates the album appealed to a relatively small cadre of followers who either acquired it quickly or not at all.

Third, the sales performance of the then-most-recent compilation albums was poor. “Reel Music” (released in March 1982) achieved net sales of only 225 thousand units. In 1983 and 1984 returns exceeded gross sales. While “20 Greatest Hits” (released in October 1982) did somewhat better, it still was the lowest-selling compilation album after “Reel Music.” Was there a genuine fall-off in demand for Beatles records? Or was Capitol simply unable to devise, implement and maintain the requisite sales and marketing strategies to bolster sales? The simple fact of the matter is that the advent of the CD circa 1985 saved both Capitol’s and the Beatles’ respective butts. The rest is history with re-issues, remastered versions, new compilations and the like.

OK here are the small-print caveats. This information was compiled right at the advent of CDs (in fact the reason why it was pulled together to begin with was in connection with whether Capitol even had the right to issue Beatles CDs). It doesn’t include anything after 1985. It’s albums only and not the kajillions of singles they also sold. It includes all configurations of albums that were then-existing, including LPs, 8-track cartridges, cassettes and picture discs. It includes records that were manufactured in the U.S. but then exported elsewhere. It does not include records that were manufactured in Canada or anywhere else outside of the U.S. It does not include bootlegs, solo records, or records derived from masters not recorded for EMI (such as the Vee-Jay brouhaha and records released by United Artists that were the soundtracks of the Beatles’ movies, until Capitol acquired United Artists). Nor does it include records that were handed out the back door, given away as free goods or record club freebies, if some of the Beatles’ lawsuit allegations are to be believed. All of this information is public record in various court files so I’m not disclosing anything that’s secret.

Now if I only could get my hands on some Rolling Stones sales info ….

About David Kronemyer

Mr. Kronemyer formerly was an executive with Capitol-EMI and then with Atlantic Records. He formerly was President of Gold Circle Films where he financed and produced its initial slate of motion pictures, including “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which (although an aesthetic disaster) was a commercial success. After leaving Gold Circle he formed his own company, Cerberus Films, which successfully syndicated several large private offerings of packages of film rights. He stopped doing this just on the cusp of the so-called credit crisis, which eradicated the presumptions on which structured financing models were based. The streets of Beverly Hills now are populated by former agents, managers, lawyers and accountants, all of who have turned into wandering zombies because the music and film industry business models on which they premised their careers have vanished. Not wishing to share this destiny, Mr. Kronemyer turned to other more productive activities, such as staring at the wall, studying psychology and playing electro-acoustic music. Track all of this insanity at www.kronemyer.com.

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22 Responses to Deconstructing Pop Culture: How Many Records Did the Beatles Actually Sell?

  1. Steven Silber Thu, 30 Apr 2009 at 13:38:36 -0400 EDT #

    Very interesting and impressive calculations, but it would have been much more enlightening if some sort of global results from EMI were also noted or measured against U.S. sales. Also, the year 1964 is used as a starting point. Weren’t the Beatles’ first two albums released in 1963? I’m almost certain that “Meet the Beatles” the U.S. Capitol version of the U.K. release “With the Beatles” came out that year.

  2. Tony Thu, 30 Apr 2009 at 16:44:57 -0400 EDT #

    If the Beatles have sold a lot less than the 1 biollion that is normally quoted, then Michael Jackson must also have sold a lot less than 750 million. There is no way Jackson has sold over 500 million more units than the Beatles. Which means I find this article hard to believe.

  3. Malek Thu, 30 Apr 2009 at 17:04:28 -0400 EDT #

    Steven, the Beatles albums weren’t released until 1964 in America.

    Tony, the oft quoted billion figure is for worldwide sales of albums *and* single records. This article is limited to album sales in America.

  4. David Thu, 30 Apr 2009 at 18:56:02 -0400 EDT #

    (response from the author of this article)

    Thanks for the comments! … Steven – I would like to have expanded the article to global EMI sales but I simply don’t have the data. Also, 1964 is the first year for which I have data, I think Malek is right on this point re: when they were released. Malek – you’re also right, this is albums only, there probably were kajillions of singles. The scandalous issue with the singles is that they were accounted for at a miserably low pennies rate, and tens of thousands of them simply were given away as free goods to support sales by other artists, which was one of the key issues in various Beatles lawsuits that I hope to detail in another post.

  5. John Fri, 01 May 2009 at 06:00:49 -0400 EDT #

    Nice article.

    Worldwide The Beatles sold over 250 million records in their recording lifetime – between 1962-1970.

    EMI now estimate vinyl records and CD sales to be over 1 Billion.

  6. Kevin Wallace Fri, 01 May 2009 at 22:17:41 -0400 EDT #

    The 1 billion that is oft quoted is calculated by units.
    1 album = 4 units
    1 EP = 2 units
    1 single = 1 unit

    They have probably sold approx 350 million albums worldwide which would equate to 1 billion plus and then add the EPs and singles.

    Over time the 1 billion units has become 1 billion records – chinese whispers!

  7. Jay Mon, 04 May 2009 at 03:39:31 -0400 EDT #

    Introducing the Beatles, released by VeeJay in 1963 in the US, flopped. It was re-released after Beatlemania hit in early 1964.

  8. Bob Tuckett Mon, 04 May 2009 at 09:59:11 -0400 EDT #

    I agree with Kevin Wallace except an album is 6 units. So the Beatles have sold well over a billion units and are the biggest selling artists of all time.

    According to the 1971 Guinness Book of Records the Beatles worldwide sales between February 1963 and September 1970 were 133 million (74 million singles, 3 millions E.P.s and 56 million albums) which represents 416 million in singles’ equivalents.

    74 x 1 = 74
    3 x 2 = 6
    56 x 6 = 336

    Total = 416 million

  9. David Kronemyer Tue, 05 May 2009 at 17:38:18 -0400 EDT #

    Jay – as mentioned, the calculations I made exclude the VeeJay releases. Kevin, Bob – While I’ve heard of it, I am skeptical of calculations in terms of \units\ using the formula you indicated because it seems arbitrary and lacks empirical support. John – \one billion\ is a suspiciously \round\ number. It reminds me of the old sign on McDonald’s how they had sold \a billion\ hamburgers (later replaced with \billions and billions\). I always wondered if they had an official corporate office of hamburger counting. Thanks for your comments!

  10. Bob Tuckett Wed, 06 May 2009 at 12:03:12 -0400 EDT #

    David,

    I do not think any recording artist has sold a billion albums worldwide – it is an impossibility if you look at the market size.
    According to the RIAA the Beatles have sold 170 million albums in the US. The next biggest selling is Garth Brooks with 128 million, then Elvis Presley with 119 million and then Led Zeppelin with 111.5
    million. As you have inside knowledge I am sure your figures for the Beatles from 1964-1985 are accurate, and the Soundscan figure of 57 million from 1991 is accurate. The figures from 1986-1990 may be debateable as the Beatles albums were released on CD in about 1987 so I would think the Beatles sold many millions in this period but I may be wrong.

    From my understanding EMI have stated that the Beatles album sales in the US represent 40% of their world wide sales. This would give the Beatles world wide sales of approximately 425 million albums. This would be many more than any other recording artist.

    According to the 1980 Guiness Book of Records “by the end of 1978 the Beatles had sold 100 million singles and 100 million albums – more than any other recording act.”

    The sales of the Rolling Stones would pale by comparison. No other reording act is in the same ball park as the Beatles when it comes to record sales. The billion plus record sales quoted by record companies for the Beatles and Elvis Presley are not album sales but singles equivalents. From what RCA and BMG have said that Presley’s US sales are 50% of his world wide sales then Presley has sold about 240 million albums world wide.

  11. chris conley Sat, 16 May 2009 at 23:16:36 -0400 EDT #

    if you take into account albums,ep’s,singles,8 track ,cassette,cd,etc (worldwide)the beatles are now over 2 billion.a number that will grow even larger after9/9/09

  12. Kevin Wallace Fri, 26 Jun 2009 at 15:08:56 -0400 EDT #

    Hi David – Do you happen to have the same sales info for the Beatles singles – it would be sensational if you had!

  13. Peter Ybarrondo Mon, 29 Jun 2009 at 08:40:40 -0400 EDT #

    I would suspect that the low number between 1986 – 1990 is just an estimate of the capitol records sales. I doubt very much that this number included any of the EMI CD releases which included all 13 studio albums and the 2 past masters discs. Using your figures of 7.5 million sales in this 5 year period would equate to each CD selling only 100,000 copies per year. That equates to only 2000 copies of each disc being sold every year in each of the 50 states during the initial CD release period of the greatest band on earth. I have to believe that this fuzzy math is just another example of Capitol/EMI greatly understating the sales to avoid paying the royalties due. I suspect that if we were ever to get the truth as to how many albums were really sold, Capitol/EMI would be owned by The Beatles and their heirs after the lawsuits were settled.

  14. Peter Ybarrondo Mon, 29 Jun 2009 at 09:10:06 -0400 EDT #

    David,
    I’ll add just a couple of other points. It was my understanding that when soundscan was first used, it was only keeping track of sales in the large retail outlets and the small retailers sales were not tracked. I will not swear by that, but it was what I had read when it first came out and verified this from one of our local record shops. Your article however was probably one of the most informative I have read.

  15. Marvin Beatle Thu, 30 Jul 2009 at 16:14:58 -0400 EDT #

    I appreciate this article but I must point out that your numbers are actually missing a lot of The Beatles sales.

    Here are some of the most glaring examples:

    1. A Hard Day’s Night is not included (not until 1979.)
    2. Let It Be is not included (not until 1979.)
    3. As Peter mentioned the EMI CDs are not included in your estimate of 86-90. There’s no way they only sold 1.5 million per year during that time period. Remember their albums were released on CD for the first time in 1987.

  16. Jason Thu, 10 Sep 2009 at 05:54:45 -0400 EDT #

    I don’t know why he wasted his time writing this article because the RIAA has the Beatles’ soundscan sales listed on their website and it’s not even close to 136 million, it’s over 186 million records.

  17. Chris Fri, 25 Sep 2009 at 19:17:36 -0400 EDT #

    I assume this list is the actual number of albums sold whether they were double albums or not. The RIAA counts each disc in a multiple album set. For example, The White Album has actually sold 9.5 million copies but the RIAA has certified it as having sold 19 million. They have done the same for the Red and Blue lps and The Anthology and BBC sets. This is why the RIAA amount is different.

  18. Peter Tue, 16 Feb 2010 at 08:35:22 -0400 EDT #

    Actually the White Album, 1962-1966, 1967-1970 do not meet the requirements for multi-disc sales because they do not total the minimum requirement of 100 minutes of music. Each of these album sales are for one unit and one unit only. Had they lasted over 100 minutes, then each album would have counted as two unit sales. Since they do not meet the minimum time requirement, each album is considered as 1 unit. The 19 million for the White Album is really 19 million, not 9.5 million. It should be noted too that the RIAA has not updated most Beatles sales since 2001 (1998 in the case of Sgt. Peppers). Elvs fans like to try and say that the White Album only sold 9.5 million, but they fail to take into account the minimum time requirements for a multi-disc album which none of the Beatles albums I have mentioned meet, and therefore each sale of these albums only counts as one unit, not two.

  19. Bernhard Wed, 04 May 2011 at 17:16:22 -0400 EDT #

    The White Album, 1962-1966, 1967-1970 meet the requirements for multi-disc sales because they were first released on vinyl and therefore the minimum requirement of 100 minutes do not apply.

  20. Miguel Fri, 26 Aug 2011 at 03:51:56 -0400 EDT #

    If Beatles sales of albums, EP’s and singles are converted into “UNIT” counts,

    does this mean that Michael Jackson’s album Thriller with 110M sales should be converted to units as well?

    100m albums sales x 6 units = 600 million units!!!

    How about Elvis’ sales? Were they converted to UNITS as well which explains the claim of 1 billion sales?

    If we compare sales of Beatles, Elvis and Michael side by side – all should be converted to UNITS then!

    • Miguel Sat, 27 Aug 2011 at 00:39:40 -0400 EDT #

      Hi David,

      My apologies, my message was supposed to be a reply to the previous comment here of of “Kevin Wallace”. I will direct my post as a reply to his comment.

      Thank you!

  21. David Kronemyer Fri, 26 Aug 2011 at 13:38:37 -0400 EDT #

    Miguel – thank you for your interesting comments – but please read the qualifiers to the original article – in particular, I do not understand the usefulness of the conversion to “units,” particularly since that’s not what the article was about. Best, DAVID