Sunday, May 3, 2009

How Many Records Did the Beatles Actually Sell?

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

by David Kronemyer
published Wed, 29 Apr 2009

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?

During 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.

[See URL for 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 The Author / Editor:

Mr. Kronemyer started his career in the music business playing
12-string electric guitar in a folk rock band. Lacking sufficient
talent to continue as a performer he began to manage bands and
promote shows. He formerly was Vice President of Capitol Records and
Senior Vice President of Atlantic Records. Segueing to the movie
business he became President of Gold Circle Films and then President
of Cerberus Films. He currently is producing records and directing
independent movies, none of which have much commercial potential.
More at:


1 comment:

life of the beatles said...

It would also be interesting to how much (or how little) the Beatles actual got from those record sales...