Have Gold Records Lost Their Luster?

The RIAA just changed the criteria for gold records. But did they cheapen the accomplishment?

By
Does Gold Still Shine?; RIAA; Cold Records; Change
Now that streams count toward album-sales figures, the prestige of gold and platinum records is in flux. Illustration by Douglas B. Jones

For 58 years, going gold was a simple matter: Sell 500,000 copies of your album or single, get a shiny record to hang on your wall. But thanks to new guidelines the Recording Industry Association of America introduced in early February, it just got easier — and more complicated.

Now, along with actual sales, the formula factors in listens on streaming services, as well as YouTube plays, and counts 10 digital-track downloads as the equivalent of one album sold; 1,500 plays on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal or any other streaming service now count as one album sale, meaning that an LP with 750 million streams would be credited with a gold record. (The rule changes only affect albums; the RIAA began taking into account streaming data for gold and platinum singles in 2013.)

The changes had an immediate effect. Albums like Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, Miranda Lambert's Platinum and Hozier's self-titled LP went from gold to platinum instantly, even though they had not reached the 1 million in sales that were previously required. Midlevel acts like Elle King and Alt-J also became gold-plated success stories overnight. So far, the RIAA has certified 29 new gold or platinum albums under the new rules. This includes previously certified albums that jumped to the next level — like Thriller, which leaped from 30 to 32 times platinum.

The RIAA's new math reflects a sea change in listening habits. Streaming revenue grew from $500 million in 2012 to more than $1 billion in 2014. Ten years ago, 90 percent of the albums on Billboard's Top 200 sold enough copies to go gold or platinum; in 2014, just 30 percent of them did the same. Billboard updated its charts to include streaming data in 2014.

"We can't be the same program we were 58 years ago, and even three years ago," says Liz Kennedy, the RIAA's gold and platinum director. "We'll have to continue to adjust over time." Peter Paterno, attorney for Dr. Dre, Metallica and Van Morrison, adds, "If they stick to [sales], they're not going to have any charts in five years. If you don't include streaming, you're not painting an accurate picture of what's going on."

Not everybody is thrilled with the new rules. Larry Stessel, a former executive for major labels Sony, Mercury and EMI, says, "Streaming, to me, is no different than radio airplay, so to count it in a certification on sales doesn't make any sense. It makes it less meaningful. There are still artists like Adele who can sell 8 million copies."

Even harsher was Anthony Tiffith, owner of Lamar's label, Top Dawg Entertainment, who called the RIAA's decision "bs." He summed up his feelings in a tweet after To Pimp a Butterfly got its status bump: "Ole skool rules apply. 1 million albums sold is platinum. Until we reach that #, save all the congrats."

From The Archives Issue 1256: March 10, 2016
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