By Jeff Price

Some time ago, we had a TuneCore Artist sell thousands of copies of his single every week.  The song and sales caught the attention of a major label, the two met and a marketing/distribution deal was struck directly between them. The single went on to break into the commercial radio charts and sold over a million copies within a year.

Recently, the label reached out to TuneCore asking for sales info on the single prior to the artist working with the label – they are trying to get an RIAA platinum sales award for the single.

There is something very wrong with this picture

Before the digital world, Gold Records (500,000 units), Platinum Records (1,000,000 units) and, for a short time, Diamond Records (10,000,000 units) were based on the number of physical units shipped, not sold. If the label/distributor could ship a certain number of copies of a release into the market, it was eligible to buy a sales award “certified” by the RIAA, a trade organization created to represent the interest of its label members. However, everything that was shipped to record stores could be returned back to the distributor for a refund.  A label could literally ship out a million CDS, sell a lot less than they shipped but still be eligible to buy a plaque. This was sort of a “who watches the watchman” situation, but it made sense as distribution was consolidated and controlled by the RIAA members.

As absurd as this may sound, this system actually worked pretty well.  Most labels did not want to spend huge amounts of money manufacturing inventory that they knew they would not sell just so they could ship it.  Nor did they want to pay additional money to force inventory onto shelves of record stores so they could get the opportunity to spend even more money to buy a RIAA certified shipment plaque to hang on the wall (although it did happen).  And finally, the majority of music being released and distributed was going through the RIAA member’s pipelines.

All that changed with the shift to digital music sales.  First, as noted at the start of this article, the RIAA no longer has a handle on what is being distributed as the majority of releases in the music stores are being placed there by entities outside of the four major music distribution companies.  With the loss of control comes the loss of knowledge and information. Next, consumers are now predominantly buying individual songs across an artist’s catalog as opposed to albums.  The concept of a gold record is sort of out the window, in its place is the gold artist.  In addition, the concept of what counts towards being eligible to get one of these awards is in doubt. Does a sale or download count if it sells for $0.05?  How about $0.10 or $0.25 or another price point?  How about a twelve song album priced at $2.99?  Does a stream count?  If not, why not?  What if the stream generated more revenue than the download?  What qualifies the consumption of music as “eligible” to be counted? Which brings us to the ridiculous situation of asking a non-qualified trade organization to verify something it is no longer qualified to verify. To be blunt, who cares if the RIAA does or does not believe you have sold a certain number of copies.  The truth is the truth whether they say it is or not.

The concern I have is the perpetuation of a myth that discredits those achieving “success” by claiming they are not eligible for a coveted award.  Let’s face it, having a gold record hanging on your wall is freakin’ cool – they look great.  But what exactly do they now represent?

And herein lies the challenge: having an entity issue these awards should mean there is either a non-partial governmental agency issuing them (not going to happen) or there is a consolidation of power and information into an institution (like the RIAA) giving them the knowledge, information and control to be qualified to issue these sorts of awards – and that’s just a bad idea.

With more music being distributed globally by non-RIAA members, hard empirical data showing what has sold or streamed (as opposed to shipped), the shift from buying/downloading albums to buying/downloading singles and the forthcoming “cloud” services, we really need a new definition of what counts, who gets to say it counts and what the awards represent.  If not, we will have a great looking bunch of eye candy on the wall that may as well just be fool’s gold.

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