How can we compare or quantify the popularity of the two biggest acts in the history of the music business? The new book, Elvis: Behind The Legend, attempts to answer this daunting question by comparing the record sales of Elvis Presley to the Beatles. As simple as this may seem, the answer is surprisingly complicated.
Although historically The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) did not start tabulating record sales until 1958, in later years, they have gone back and recalculated their figures to include all of Elvis Presley’s certified singles, albums and EPs released before 1958.
The RIAA says that Elvis Presley falls behind the Beatles in terms of total album sales. The RIAA tabulates album sales in the U.S. only. As of July 2015, Elvis has sold 135.5* million albums in the U.S., which is third behind The Beatles who have sold 178 million albums in the U.S. and just half a million less than Garth Brooks who has sold 136* million. (*Note: Read how these figures were quietly updated in July 2015)
However, when exploring the RIAA Gold and Platinum Searchable Database online (RIAA.com), the RIAA figures show that in the U.S. Elvis sold twice as many singles (50.5 million) compared to The Beatles (25 million).
It is worth noting that singles were much more popular in the 1950s and early 1960s when Elvis became popular. The buying trend then shifted to albums in the mid- to late-1960s when The Beatles were at the height of their fame. EPs, which contain 3-5 songs, are included in RIAA’s calculation of album sales, by using a weighted factor depending on the certification level of Gold, Platinum or Multiplatinum status.
However, the record sales figures are constantly changing since The Beatles and Elvis Presley are still selling records in the present day. The last time the RIAA awarded new record certifications was 2011 for Elvis and 2014 for The Beatles.
In terms of numbers, The Beatles have sold 42.5 million more albums in the U.S. than Elvis, yet Elvis sold 25.5 million more singles than The Beatles. Since albums usually contain 10-12 more songs than singles, The Beatles would clearly be the winner in terms of U.S. record sales.
While The Beatles come out on top in the U.S., the true best-selling artist of all time would have to be the top-seller all around the world. When figuring sales of singles, EPs and albums worldwide, many historians believe that Elvis is the best-selling artist period.
However, there is no independent agency that tabulates global or worldwide sales of musical artists. Can it really be proven that Elvis is the best-selling global artist of all-time?
The question is explored further in Elvis Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music, which also includes the full list and calculation totals of Gold, Platinum and Multi-Platinum albums awarded to both Elvis and The Beatles.
In the meantime, here’s a quote from Paul McCartney, who visited Graceland for the first time in 2013: “I thought the Beatles had gold records until I had a private tour of Graceland. The Hall of Gold says it all. Elvis has the most Gold, Platinum and Multi-Platinum sales of all of us… amazing man… simply amazing.”