Toppling ‘The Wall’: The Farce Of Double-Counting In The RIAA’s All-Time Platinum List

Sep 17th, 2008 // 34 Comments

Reading the New York Times obituary of Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright yesterday, I came upon a statistic that the newspaper ran unquestioningly that ticked me off, as it always does when I see similar statements in print:

Pink Floyd’s 1979 album, “The Wall,” eventually sold 23 million copies in the United States.

No, it didn’t, I grumbled to myself. It’s a double-album—by RIAA math, that means it sold about 11.5 million. SNARL!

There are many things wrong with the Recording Industry Association of America’s system for certifying albums gold, platinum, multiplatinum, and (now) diamond. There’s the counting of records shipped, not sold; I’ve seen discs certified platinum that have actually SoundScanned fewer than 700,000 copies. On the other side of the ledger, there are discs that are under-certified because of the RIAA’s outmoded system requiring labels to request certification—short-changing dozens of classic Motown artists, for example.

But nothing in the RIAA metals methodology sticks in my craw more than double-counting. It’s the biggest scam in record-industry self-tallying, and the main reason it’s infuriating is the very example cited above: journalists and music fans the world over use the RIAA’s certs as their yardstick for all-time album sales. It’s basically a total distortion of rock history.

When you buy one copy of a double album, you give that album two sales toward its RIAA total. Buy a five-disc box set, and your sale is multiplied by five. So while, say, Houses of the Holy had to sell one million copies in 1973 to go platinum, the four-disc Led Zeppelin box set had to sell just 250,000 in 1990 to get the same certification.

Never mind the most basic illogic of this system: the length of a disc has changed in the conversion from vinyl to CD, for one thing; and you can’t buy just one disc of a set, so why should each disc be counted as if it’s an individual sale? Even the industry’s seemingly more reasonable rationale—that a more expensive set deserves a higher certification—doesn’t hold up, because the multiple-counting happens regardless of what you actually paid. For example, OutKast’s 2003 smash Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, priced by BMG and most retailers as a single-disc item, gets double-counted by the RIAA even though many people paid under $12 for both discs.

Garth Brooks famously milked the double-counting system a decade ago by putting out numerous low-priced multidisc releases—a $10 live set, boxes of his old albums remastered—in his (failed) quest to pad his career total and take first place on the all-time list of most-certified acts from the Beatles. (Who, to be fair, have also benefited mightily from double-counting—we’ll get to the White Album in a minute.)

In my writings over the years, when I’m covering something about an all-time best-selling album, I use my own revisionist version of the RIAA’s Top Sellers List to rank albums. (No editor has corrected me yet.) But I shouldn’t be alone on this. Let’s share the revisionism, shall we?

To help set a new standard for all music journalists—we at Idolator are nothing if not public-interest-minded—here’s the corrupt RIAA list (26 places, due to a tie), and below, what a proper Top 25 24 list would look like. Numbers on the left are platinum level. As you see, once you get past the eternal Top Three, there’s a lot of shifting around.

29 Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975, The Eagles
27 Thriller, Michael Jackson
23 Led Zeppelin IV, Led Zeppelin
23 The Wall, Pink Floyd
22 Back in Black, AC/DC
21 Double Live, Garth Brooks
21 Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II, Billy Joel
20 Come on Over, Shania Twain
19 The Beatles (White Album)
19 Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
17 Boston
17 The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston (Soundtrack)
17 No Fences, Garth Brooks
16 Cracked Rear View, Hootie & the Blowfish
16 Greatest Hits, Elton John
16 Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
16 Hotel California, The Eagles
16 1967–1970, The Beatles
16 Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin
15 1962–1966, The Beatles
15 Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen
15 Appetite for Destruction, Guns ‘N Roses
15 Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
15 Saturday Night Fever, The Bee Gees (Soundtrack)
15 Greatest Hits, Journey
15 Supernatural, Santana

29 Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975, The Eagles
27 Thriller, Michael Jackson
23 Led Zeppelin IV, Led Zeppelin
22 Back in Black, AC/DC
20 Come on Over, Shania Twain
19 Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
17 Boston
17 The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston (Soundtrack)
17 No Fences, Garth Brooks
16 Cracked Rear View, Hootie & the Blowfish
16 Greatest Hits, Elton John
16 Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
16 Hotel California, The Eagles
16 Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin
15 Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen
15 Appetite for Destruction, Guns ‘N Roses
15 Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
15 Greatest Hits, Journey
15 Supernatural, Santana
14 Ropin’ the Wind, Garth Brooks
14 …Baby One More Time, Britney Spears
14 Greatest Hits, Simon & Garfunkel
14 Backstreet Boys
14 Metallica
14 Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf

Who loses in my system? Billy Joel, obviously—and double albums in general. Not a single double-disc would make my “real” Top 25, and only one would make a Top 50: The Wall, at 11.5 million copies, would rank 43rd in my system.

The Beatles are also losers—as a Fabs fan, I do find it a little depressing that all three of their titles drop out of the Top 25. But that is counteracted by my annoyance every time I read a lazy journalist claim that the White Album is “the Beatles’ all time best-selling album.” Much as I love that 9.5 million–selling, 19-times-platinum record, that’s a total perversion of history—any Beatles fan with half a brain knows it’s the 12 million–selling Abbey Road (which would rank 30th in my system in a 13-way tie).

On the plus side, the bottom rungs of my Top 25 round out the genres on the list to include more straight pop (Britney and Backstreet) alongside all the Boomer rock.

Of course, a real, true-to-life list would use SoundScan totals instead of platinum tallies to rank the top U.S. sellers. (At the very least, it would eliminate all those multiway ties between albums at the same certification level.) But that’s not going to happen, thanks to SoundScan being less than two decades old and the total lack of actual sales data for albums before the 1990s. And it would mean negating a system that’s more than four decades old. I don’t see anyone sending back their framed platinum records, no matter what change of heart the RIAA might have.

Nonetheless, I hereby implore fellow music writers to use this list from here on. Not just because it conforms with, y’know, reality, but because it punishes the double album, one of rock’s worst inventions. Let’s face it—virtually all of them could stand to be cut down, anyway.


  1. Ned Raggett

    Who loses in my system? Billy Joel, obviously

    Reason enough to ask that your system become the immediate gold standard.

  2. Audif Jackson Winters III

    What are the least loved albums on either list? Hootie and Alanis are obvious answers … there isn’t a used CD store in the country that doesn’t have at least 5 copies of either album in stock. But do you think that there’s anybody out there who is still listening to “The Bodyguard” soundtrack on a regular basis? It’s probably been a decade since I heard “I Will Always Love You” in any context.

  3. Chris Molanphy

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: My wife and I have a friend who still plays the Beaches soundtrack recreationally. So you never know.

    Forget “I Will Always Love You”; I’d theorize that those old Bodyguard discs still get a workout at parties when folks wanna play the Whitney version of “I’m Every Woman” — now a wedding/girls-night-out staple.

  4. Anonymous

    Oops! I think Physical Graffiti might need to get axed from the revised list. Although I haven’t listened since Godzilla ate “Kashmir” and barfed out “Come With Me,” I can confirm that it’s a double.


  5. Audif Jackson Winters III

    @Chris Molanphy: Yeah, after I posted that, I remembered that track was on there. I’m guessing that it’s the Whitney track that is most present in current culture, even just by appearances on various movies and TV shows, in bumpers, and the type of functions you described.

  6. righteousmaelstrom

    @HarveyWallbanger: At 82 minutes 15 seconds, yeah it was a double. The number should be 8M. I could swear the fourth side is a little short compared to the others.

    If they laid off the mandrax though it could have been a single abum

  7. righteousmaelstrom

    @righteousmaelstrom: or a single “album.”

  8. Anonymous

    Wow… better question, who cares?

  9. Chris Molanphy

    @HarveyWallbanger: GOOD CATCH. Thanks a bunch. Can’t believe I missed that.

    List is corrected above, with a strikeout, not a full deletion. This reduces my Top 25 to a Top 24–which is not fixable, unfortunately, due to all the ties. The list would have to be a Top 28 if I included all the albums certified 13-times-platinum.

  10. Anonymous

    where can a regular shmoe like me find soundscan numbers? I often wonder how much the bands i like are selling

  11. Whigged

    OK – I understand the way Garth Brooks can get nailed on this, but most of the other sets, like “Physical Graffiti” and “The Wall”, and even the box sets, you are paying the equivalent of two CDs or more, so I don’t exactly see the RIAA doing something totally disingenuous.

    It’s all about packaging. “Use Your Illusion” could very well have come out as a two-disc set for instance, but instead ended up as two singles because of Axl’s whims. But most people I know don’t own just one, they own “I” & “II”.

  12. Audif Jackson Winters III

    @sofatruck: I don’t know, who cares about your apathy about the subject?

  13. revmatty

    I do like the revised list, and was surprised at how many albums were less than 30 years old. This actually restores some tiny degree of my faith in the musical taste of this country. Not much, but some.

    While I don’t think I could find 24 songs on all those albums that I actually like, I at least respect the quality of the product in each case.

  14. Anonymous

    @Whigged: Yeah, but the original pricing of double albums on vinyl–when most of the sales of The Wall, Zep, Beatles compilations occurred–wasn’t that much higher. $3-$4, if my memory serves. As opposed to now, when those 2 Beatles comps (62-66/67-70) are reeee-dick-u-louosly overpriced. Sort of like most of the Beatles reissues on CD, which have cheap/crap packaging.

  15. Chris Molanphy

    @Whigged: Okay, maybe some of language about the evil of this method is slightly overheated. BUT…

    What if I only like Billy Joel’s career in the ’70s and don’t want his ’80s hits? Can I buy Greatest Hits, Volume I? Nope, not an option. Your choices are $20-plus for the double-set, or nothing.

    How do we count sales of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street or Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, now that they’re each sold as single discs? For that matter, why weren’t the Beatles’ “red” and “blue” greatest-hits sets, each about an hour in length, reissued as single CDs by Capitol in the early ’90s? Answer: greed on EMI’s part, and the two-CD releases kept the album in double-certification zone for RIAA tallying purposes. You can see the result above–notice that both of those Beatles sets makes the all-time list, and other albums that have been reissued as singles don’t. Not evil, just…suspicious.

    Bottom line, the RIAA system might conform with pricing in most cases, but it just doesn’t conform with the reality of the way albums are purchased.

  16. Whigged

    @Chris Molanphy: Yeah, I see your point, especially with them not being split up in the case of Joel and the Red and Blue CDs. And don’t get me wrong, I am not defending the RIAA in the least – because they suck, like the greedy labels [try to] suck money from our pockets.

  17. Elijah-M

    @Chris Molanphy: 1962-66 is indeed about an hour long, but if I remember correctly, 1967-70 is too long to fit onto a 90 minute cassette.

  18. How do I say this ... THROWDINI!

    Did the Thriller 25th Anniversary reissue, with the accompanying second disc of remixes, impact this in any way, or not really because 98% of the Thriller sales were of the original album?

  19. Elijah-M

    I would imagine one reason the Beatles don’t appear on that list more often is that up until 1987, the albums being counted were the American releases. When their catalog was released on CD, everything pre-Rubber Soul was essentially an entirely new title, and was counted as such.

  20. Chris Molanphy

    @How do I say this … THROWDINI!: At least according to Billboard and SoundScan, the Thriller reissue counts toward its lifetime total. (Which is why Billboard tracked it earlier this year on the catalog chart, not the main chart.) Whether the RIAA will pool all the sales and boost Thriller‘s certification, I don’t know — but I’ll bet Sony checked this very carefully before they proceeded with the reissue. Everybody (except Warner/Elektra, natch) wants Michael to retake the crown from the Eagles.

    @Elijah-M: Good point. Not sure how the RIAA squares pre- and post-’87 sales of albums with the same title, like Rubber Soul and Revolver; I’ll bet they pool them all, if they differ by four or fewer tracks. Whereas I bet the vastly different Hard Day’s Night and Help! soundtracks are tracked differently. That’s just an educated guess on my part, however.

  21. Chris Molanphy

    @Elijah-M: Whoops, you’re right — my bad. According to Wikipedia, it’s 99 minutes long! Damn!

  22. How do I say this ... THROWDINI!

    @Chris Molanphy: Yeah, I can see that people would want Michael to be #1, even given all of his, let’s say, issues. For me, besides being a big Michael fan, its because I always consider Thriller to be the “true” best selling album because the Eagles album is a Greatest Hits compilation, which seems like cheating to me. Of course, its easier to sell more copies of an album that’s all hits. (Not that Thriller wasn’t mostly hits, but you know what I mean.)

  23. moulty

    Buy more copies of Purple Rain people!

  24. Aaron Poehler

    The entire point of the system is to generate BS promotional statistics, just like the Grammys, the top album sales charts, etc. and it’s all rotten with corruption from top to bottom, so while I agree the stats on multiple-disc albums are bullshit, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

  25. DocStrange

    Again, as a Pink Floyd fanboy (who was devastated at the loss of Rick Wright as well), the whole “The Wall sold 25 million copies” thing always pisses me off too. It really doesn’t matter since Dark Side of the Moon (a much better album which still has pretty good sales to this day) sold more copies around the world if you count The Wall as a double album or not.

    On a side note, it is truly depressing that Hootie & The Blowfish sold that many albums. What were we thinking?

  26. CarsmileSteve

    mmmmmmmmm, lovely stats. i ♥ stuff like this.

  27. Chris Molanphy

    @DocStrange: Thank you for chiming in. You and I are on opposite sides of the aisle on Floyd (barring a handful of tracks, I mostly can’t stand ‘em), but I’m glad you agree with me that it’s a perversion of history to call the record that happens to be their big double-album their best-seller. You feel the same way about Floyd and The Wall that I feel about the Beatles and the White Album.

    (And BTW, you actually underestimate Dark Side a bit — it doesn’t have “pretty good sales to this day,” it has insane weekly sales for a record that’s that old. A Billboard feature a couple of years ago about the album’s longevity pointed out that at certain points in recent years it’s sold as much as 10,000 copies a week. I mean, that’s better than the entire bottom half of a typical week’s Billboard album chart. Crazy. I may not like Floyd, but: damn, props.)

    Re: Hootie — what’s most fun about the list above (both RIAA-corrupt and my revision) is how it throws together albums that have sold steadily over time with one- to two-year flashes in the pan. I’d say Hootie is just about the flashiest, whereas Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell is the tortoise–never rose higher than No. 14, but it sells a couple hundred thousand a year, like clockwork.

  28. DocStrange

    @Chris Molanphy: Not only that, as much as I love Dark Side and believe it is culturally important, sonically innovative and should easily be your first Floyd purchase (it definitely shouldn’t be that Greatest Hits album that Capitol and/or Columbia put out a few years ago. I refuse to recognize its existance for excluding “Free Four”), it’s not the band’s best album (Wish You Were Here is).

    I’ll also mention that I do love The Wall (notably “Hey You”, “Run Like Hell” and “Comfortably Numb”), but no one remembers it being so popular that it’s allegedly the fourth biggest selling album of all time. This is why I believe that Dark Side has to have easily sold more copies (it was on the chart non-stop from 1973 until 1988 and there’s an urban legend that there’s a record pressing plant in Germany thats sole purpose is to produce copies of the album. I don’t know how long The Wall was on, but it sure didn’t sell as much, hence why I believe it only sold as half as many copies as it the RIAA does)

  29. @Chris Molanphy: I totally agree with Chris M., and thank you Chris for putting this out there. As to the guy who said “who cares,” how did you get here? You navigated your way to this page, read the thread, added a comment, and yet you still failed to realize this is a talking point about the most successful, biggest-selling albums in the history of the most successful country (in history). Anyhow, my thoughts on the revised list are that it doesn’t have this strange emergence of titles that pop-up simply b/c of a policy-change that is nothing more than a loophole to artists such as Garth Brooks who, as mentioned above, milked the policy and probably spotlighted how it will eventually have to be replaced. Let’s hope so. And when looking at those titles I can’t recall them ever having the sustained impact of titles like “Rumours” or Shania Twain’s “Come On Over.” These were industry-defining statements that often have one thing in common: nobody could have ever predicted their widespread, massive international success. But something tells me that the Garth Brooks camp was well aware of the RIAA doulbe-counting policy that so benefitted his “Double Live.” And as for Use Your Illusion I & II, this was a case where both cd’s actually cost the price of: two albums! This is never the case with these double-discs, and apparently was not the case before my time either. The week that UYI I & II were released they both sold neighboorhood 700K each, prob over 1.5M combined. If it were sold as a double-disc that would stand as one of the biggest weeks ever for an album and would have probably been #1 at the time, even though it would have likely included only around 700K-800K individual buyers. These are all asterisk-noted sales figures, to me.

  30. @Chris Molanphy: What got me here was trying to find the last time Prince’s “Purple Rain” received certification. I feel like it has been sitting at 13 million as long as I’ve been tracking album sales. It must be higher by now.

  31. Alex

    Actually a Double Album requires to exceed 100 minutes to be counted twice, White Album is 94 minutes so Its Infact a 19 Million seller . Also no Pre-Sgt. Pepper had different us,uk tracklisting so their sales are divided .

  32. Alex

    Platinum award was introduced in 1976.
    Eagles greatest hits was first album to get platinum .
    So are the sales of albums like Abbey Road , led zeppalin after 1976?
    If so it could explain no 60s artist making the list aside from Beatles. No Stones , Doors , Who ,or 50s elvis , sinatra.
    This issue is more important than double crap sales .

  33. John

    White Album was priced at about $12 in 1968 ,so it was certainly worth to be counted twice.
    Also unlike artists of 70s onwards who were crazy for album sales ,Beatles never promoted their albums after ’66 or even spaced their albums. Also singles were not re released on studio albums
    brooks may have done for certification but
    platinum disc didnt came up 6 years after beatles break up .

  34. Anonnymoose

    “I’ll also mention that I do love The Wall (notably “Hey You”, “Run Like Hell” and “Comfortably Numb”), but no one remembers it being so popular that it’s allegedly the fourth biggest selling album of all time. ”

    In 1980, The Wall was EVERYWHERE and played round the clock on both top 40 and rock radio.

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