Buried among the pile of albums certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for the month of February, was this oddity: Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. Odd because the album, which boasts such classics as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and is considered by rock historians to be one of the most influential records of all time, was released way back in 1966. Did it really take thirty-four years of selling just 15,000 copies annually for Pet Sounds to reach the 500,000 mark? By contrast, last year’s debut album from R&B singer Angie Stone was certified gold just four months after its release. And besides, according to SoundScan, which has been tracking sales digitally since 1991, Pet Sounds has sold 210,000 copies in just the last nine years. (SoundScan and RIAA sales measurements are apples and oranges; SoundScan counts individual album copies sold, RIAA counts totals shipped out to stores.)
The answer to the Pet Sounds riddle lies in the certification process. The RIAA only certifies albums when a record company provides, for verification, all the shipping documentation on a specific title. That means the RIAA only acts when a label makes a formal certification, or a re-certification, request. For instance, according to the RIAA, the blockbuster soundtrack to Grease, which continues to sell nearly a million copies each year according to Soundscan, is only eight-times platinum. That’s because its label, Polydor, hasn’t asked for a re-certification in sixteen years. If it did, odds are the album would now probably be at least fifteen-times platinum.
A few years ago the Beach Boys’ label Capitol Records finally asked that Pet Sounds be certified, but, according to an RIAA source, then had to withdraw the request when it was unable to uncover the requisite shipping history. The label came back again late last year with sales information, but only covering the last fifteen years. It was enough to earn the record gold status, accounting to roughly 670,000 copies sold.
Where’s the rest of the Pet Sounds‘ 1966-1985 sales info? Packed away somewhere on microfiche, says Mike Etchart, who oversaw the certification of Pet Sounds, and spent three months searching record company vaults in vain for the information. The confusion can be attributed to a number of factors. Sales information for thirty-year-old albums tends to scatter, and according to some critics, the Beach Boys’ catalog has been in a state of disarray for years now. And making matters more complicated, Pet Sounds was briefly licensed to Warner Bros. Records in the late Sixties. That meant a separate company had its own sales data. Also, in recent years various versions of Pet Sounds (remastered recordings, box set, etc.) have been released, adding to the paper blizzard.
According to a Capitol spokesperson, the label is still searching for additional information and hopes to get Pet Sounds certified platinum, for sales of one million copies.
As for the big question, how many copies has Pet Sounds actually sold in America over the last three-and-a-half decades? “My assumption is it’s double-platinum,” says Etchart.