Table of Contents
- 1 The nutshell version of this article
- 2 The 500,000 copies statement
- 3 The RIAA according to the RIAA
- 4 A little more of the story
- 5 In-house awards are not fake awards
- 6 Gold and platinum awards for singles
- 7 Gold awards for albums
- 8 About the 500,000 copies statement
- 9 Platinum and multi-platinum awards for albums
- 10 Certifying multiple-record albums
- 11 The wholesale cost of records
- 12 RCA drops the price of albums!
- 13 How many mono sales to go gold?
- 14 How many stereo sales to go gold?
- 15 We may never know the truth
- 16 Conclusion and advice
- 17 About all those gold records on the Internet
MOST OF THE INFORMATION about gold and platinum record awards of the Sixties on the Internet is crap! That is, most of the “information” regarding RIAA Gold and Platinum Records awarded to albums from the ’60s and early ’70s is factually incorrect. This applies to almost every website: the few that aren’t incorrect are often misleading, and this includes the RIAA’s own website!
This article will assist most readers in understanding RIAA Gold and Platinum Record Awards for records issued prior to 1975. 1
This article addresses the basic criteria that were used by the RIAA for awarding Gold and Platinum Records to singles and albums. The focus is on the awards from 1958 through 1974, during which the criteria remained stable.
This article has been a part of this blog for years but only a few people have known of it let alone read it.
A lot of changes have occurred since, especially for albums; this article notes a few but not in the detail it deserves.
There have been so many changes in the definition of a “unit” when counting multi-record sets that it would require an article of its own! 2
Most websites screw up the information when mentioning Gold Record Awards for albums. Almost without exception, they apply post-1974 standards to pre-1974 Awards and almost always mention numbers of copies sold—usually incorrect or unverified numbers.
The nutshell version of this article
Here are the entire 5,400 words of this article summed up in four statements of fewer than one hundred words:
1. In the ’60s, the RIAA Gold Record Award for albums was based solely on dollar amounts.
2. The number of copies sold was irrelevant.
3. RIAA Platinum Records don’t have to sell a million copies, but a million units—which doesn’t matter because there were no RIAA Platinum Records in the ’60s.
Any time you read a remark that references RIAA Gold or Platinum Record Awards made prior to 1974 that states numbers of copies sold, you’re probably reading a source that doesn’t know a thing about RIAA Gold and Platinum Record Awards.
Now on to the nitty-gritty . . .
The 500,000 copies statement
No record was ever certified for an RIAA Gold Record Award based on “the sale of more than 500,000 copies” in the ’60s!
See “About the 500,000 copies statement above” below.
The RIAA according to the RIAA
Everyone who buys sells, collects, or records knows the initialism “RIAA.” Many do not know exactly what the RIAA does. Here is the introduction to the RIAA that greets one on the organization’s website:
“The Recording Industry Association of America® (RIAA) is the trade organization that supports and promotes the creative and financial vitality of the major music companies. Its members comprise the most vibrant record industry in the world, investing in great artists to help them reach their potential and connect to their fans.
In support of this mission, the RIAA works to protect the intellectual property and First Amendment rights of artists and music labels; conduct consumer, industry, and technical research; and monitor and review state and federal laws, regulations, and policies.
RIAA also certifies Gold, Platinum, Multi-Platinum, Diamond, and Los Premios De Oro y Platino sales and streaming awards. Originally conceived to honor artists and track sound recording sales, Gold & Platinum Awards have come to stand as a benchmark of success for any artist.”
Believe it or not, the RIAA website does not provide any meaningful background or history on the changing criteria of the various awards!
A little more of the story
The RIAA was formed in 1952 as a united front representing the interests of the larger record companies. These companies are often referred to as “the major companies,” or simply “the majors” (and yes, it’s a baseball analogy). The work of the organization included oversight of copyright issues, working with various unions, and carrying on research “relating to the record industry and government regulations.” 3
The RIAA also established universal standards for such technical aspects of recording as the equalization curve and how stereophonic record grooves should be cut. These were very important issues to the industry at the time.
On a side note, Wikipedia states that the RIAA spends between $2,000,000 and $6,000,000 a year lobbying members of the United States Congress. 4
In-house awards are not fake awards
Record companies were giving awards to artists for exceptional achievements for years. The first known gold record award was given to Glenn Miller in 1942 by RCA Victor for sales of 1,000,000 copies of Chattanooga Choo Choo during the previous year. 5
Other companies followed suit and the gold record became fairly common in the industry. The sales that were being acknowledged were not confined to the US: a million-selling record is big deal, wherever the sales are made. A record that sells 500,000 copies in the US and 500,000 copies in Europe is still a million-seller!
They are now called in-house awards and for many records, these are the only sales indicators that we have to go on. 6
Supposedly, record companies gave gold records for authentic million-sellers and for a host of other things. Since no one was checking, any company could give any artist any award for any reason. Most of the hubbub about phony awards being handed out willy-nilly is difficult to verify.
Today, in-house awards from major record companies are generally recognized as legitimate sales barometers—especially those from the pre-RIAA era.
Hypothetically, an American record company can give an American recording artist a gold record for a record that was a commercial failure in the US but sold a million copies in Europe. Despite the record failing to sell anything in the US, it is nonetheless a legitimate gold record award celebrating a genuine achievement. And the record company is not obliged to state on the award where the records were sold.
Gold and platinum awards for singles
For some reason, the RIAA took an interest in all of this and instituted their own Gold Record Awards program that began in February 1958. Since then, the RIAA awards are considered the only “official” awards. To qualify for certification, record companies had to request certification and pay for an independent audit of their books to verify that a given record had in fact sold the requisite amounts.
As the awards had little value at first, many companies did not request certification for their artists. (There are many reasons why a record company might not want to show anyone their books.)
When the RIAA began issuing Gold Record Awards in 1958, singles were the medium that mattered but albums were recognized. The criteria for singles and albums were very different in the beginning: the RIAA counted records sold for singles but counted dollar amounts for albums as few LPs sold large quantities of records.
Gold Record Award for singles
A single had to sell 1,000,000 (one million) copies within the United States. The RIAA counted all sales of 78s and 45s to retailers and wholesalers, including jukebox vendors. They also counted free copies given to retailers for placing large orders, as they were more a discount to encourage large orders than actual freebies. 7
They did not count free copies given for promotional purposes, notably those shipped to radio stations for air-play. These never counted for more than a few thousand per title.
Platinum Record Awards for singles
Beginning in 1976, the RIAA awarded a Platinum Record to a single that sold 2,000,000 (two million) copies.
Gold Record Awards for singles
With the increasing lack of interest in singles as a medium, sales plummeted over the years. This was not good for the industry: there were no more gold singles, even for records that topped the charts!
In 1989, the RIAA lowered the criteria for singles: they only needed to sell only 500,000 (five-hundred-thousand) copies for a Gold Record Award.
Multi-Platinum Record Awards for singles
Beginning in 1989, the RIAA awarded a Platinum Record to a single that only sold 1,000,000 (one million) copies.
Gold awards for albums
As stated above, initially the RIAA only counted dollar amounts for albums. The criteria were constant for seventeen years before being changed out of necessity. Other changes have occurred since then.
Gold Record Awards for albums
Albums had to sell $1,000,000 (one million dollars) at the manufacturer’s wholesale price to qualify. The wholesale price was a portion of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. As these varied from company to company, to simplify the process the RIAA set wholesale price as one-third (33⅓%) of the retail price.
The number of copies sold was irrelevant.
Here is the most extreme (hypothetical) example of the irrelevancy of copies sold as a qualifying factor in RIAA Gold Record Awards in the ’60s. Suppose a wealthy collector made a deal with a record company to tape a once-in-a-lifetime performance of a string quartet made up of musicians who never make records.
From this tape, one record was pressed after which the tape and all the parts were destroyed. The company assigned a manufacturer’s suggested list price of $3,330,000 to that unique record and the collector paid the full retail price.
All of the criteria required by the RIAA would be have been met and four musicians would be awarded an RIAA Gold Record “to commemorate the sales of more than one million dollars worth of records” based on the sales of . . . one record.
Gold Record Awards for albums
As production costs and mechanical fees rose through the years (notably, royalties to the artist), so did the wholesale and retail price of albums. As the price rose, the number of records required to reach the RIAA gold standard declined.
In January 1974, Bob Dylan’s PLANET WAVES “shipped gold” and received an immediate Gold Record with fewer than 500,000 orders! This caused some consternation in the industry and the RIAA set about tweaking the rules. Beginning in 1974, an album had to meet two criteria:
• An album must sell $1,000,000 (one million dollars) at the wholesale level.
• An album must sell at least 500,000 (five-hundred-thousand) units.
In 1958, no one discussed “units.” First, albums were LPs. The few tapes that sold were reel-to-reels and they mostly sold to classical music buffs. The impact of tapes on RIAA certification was effectively non-existent.
Second, neither albums nor units had anything to do with RIAA certification: the award was based on a monetary achievement.
By 1968, a unit consisted of either an LP or a tape. While reel-to-reels and 8-tracks were still manufactured, they sold little and had a minimal impact on sales tallies. Most tape sales were of cassettes.
About the 500,000 copies statement
In the sub-section titled “The 500,000 copies statement” at the top of this post, I wrote that no record was ever certified for an RIAA Gold Record Award based on the sale of more than 500,000 copies in the ’60s. And that is true and this is important: 1974 was the first year in which the RIAA awarded Gold Records to an album based on unit sales (“the sale of more than 500,000 copies”), not just dollar sales.
Yeah yeah yeah, a few albums received a Gold Record for sales of fewer than a half-million, but they were double-albums with a higher list price and the award was based on the dollar amount, not the unit sales.
In fact, thinking about it just makes me wonder why they changed the wording on the plaque. Had they kept it the way things were (“the sales of more than one million dollars worth of [Whatever] Records”), no one would have noticed!
Platinum and multi-platinum awards for albums
Not one single or album received a Platinum Record Award in the ’60s! Why? Because there was no such award until the ’70s!
During the early ’70s, some record companies gave their artists platinum records as awards for sales beyond the gold level. These were unofficial, in-house awards.
In 1976, the RIAA introduced the official Platinum Record Award. They used a similar set of criteria to the Gold Award:
• An album must sell $2,000,000 (two million dollars) at the wholesale level.
• An album must sell at least 1,000,000 (one million) units.
In 1985, the RIAA introduced the Multi-Platinum Award for sales levels in multiples of one million. Wholesale dollar amounts were also a part of the award and were counted in multiples of $2,000,000 (two million dollars).
• For a 2xMulti-Platinum Record Award, an album must sell $4,000,000 (four million dollars) at the wholesale level and move at least 2,000,000 (two million) units.
• For a 3xMulti-Platinum Record Award, an album must sell $6,000,000 (six million dollars) at the wholesale level and move at least 3,000,000 (three million) units.
Etcetera . . .
Certifying multiple-record albums
Exactly how the RIAA counts multiple-record sets has varied over the years. A single album is always one “unit”; a double-album has been one or two units. At one time, whether or not a double-album counted as two units or one was based on the length of the music!
This is completely contrary to the original intention of the Gold Record standards for LPs. Plus, it was just plain idiotic in action. Considers these possibilities:
• If a two-record set had a manufacturer’s list price of $9.98 but was only 59:59 minutes long, it counted as a single unit towards certification. If it was 60:00, it counted as two units!
• But if a two-record set was just one second longer (60:00), it counted as two units—even if it had a lower manufacturer’s list price (such as $7.98)!
Confused? Just remember that prior to 1975, an album need only sell $1,000,000 wholesale; the more expensive an album’s retail price, the fewer copies it needed to sell to reach that level.
The wholesale cost of records
Now a little history: on June 28, 1948, Columbia Records introduced the 33⅓ rpm long-playing records, establishing a new industry standard that would hold for almost forty years.
The first twelve-inch 33⅓ rpm album featured violinist Nathan Milstein performing the Mendelssohn Concerto In E Minor with Bruno Walter conducting the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York. It was issued as Columbia ML-4001 with a “premium price” of $4.85.
Released at the same time was the first ten-inch 33⅓ album featured Walter conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. It was issued as Columbia ML-2001 and was priced at $3.85. 8
As other companies quickly entered the LP market, retail prices varied from company to company and from genre to genre.
RCA drops the price of albums!
In early 1954, Columbia Records reduced the manufacturer’s retail price of its classical line by 30%. The February 13, 1954, issue of Billboard featured an article titled “Victor Fires Salvo / Slashes On LP’s Heightens General Price Skirmish” about RCA Victor’s response. The company cut the price of most of its 12-inch classical LPs from $5.72 to $3.99! They also reduced the price of their 10-inch LPs from $$4.60 to $3.25.
By the end of the year, they reduced the list price for all of their LPs: twelve-inch LPs were cut to $3.98, whereas they had been $4.19 to $5.95. They also lowered the cost of 45 rpm singles to 89¢ and EPs to $1.49. The prices took effect on the first day of 1955.
RCA president Frank Folsom said he was convinced the record industry was on the threshold of its greatest period of expansion:
“Introduction of the 33 and 45 rpm records in 1949 greatly increased the number of record players. Today there are more than 20,000,000 phonographs in use compared with only 10,000,000 at the end of World War II.”
He then predicted that Americans would purchase another 20,000,000 players in the next five years. 9
In 1958, stereo LPs were available, and most companies charged one dollar more for them than for their mono counterparts ($4.99 vs. $3.99).
In 1968, mono albums were discontinued as a viable commercial format; the average price for an LP in the US was now $4.99.
How many mono sales to go gold?
From 1955 through 1967, the average retail price for a mono LP was approximately $3.99. Using the RIAA’s one-third rule, then the wholesale price was $1.33. An album would need to sell slightly more than 750,000 mono copies to reach the million-dollar mark.
Since the majority of pop LPs sold prior to 1964 were mono, we may assume that any pop LP that was awarded an RIAA Gold Record prior to 1964 sold approximately 700,000 copies.
There weren’t many: among the artists enjoying the folk music boom, the Kingston Trio was the most successful with six gold LPs, while Peter, Paul & Mary had two. Elvis had eight gold LPs and Ray Charles had one. No other rock & roll artist had a Gold Record for an album—the Beach Boys would not receive one until 1965.
That all changed in 1964 with the Beatles and the British Invasion.
How many stereo sales to go gold?
From 1958 through 1967, the average retail price for a stereo LP was approximately $4.99. Using the RIAA’s one-third rule, then the wholesale price was $1.66. An album would need to sell slightly more than 600,000 stereo copies to reach the million-dollar mark.
By the middle of the decade, rock and pop LPs were selling a mixture of mono and stereo copies. During this time, we can assume that any LP that was awarded an RIAA Gold Record sold approximately 650,000 copies.
With the elimination of the practice of releasing new albums in both mono and stereo in 1968, most new LP sales were stereo with a list price of $4.99. We can assume that any LP that was awarded an RIAA Gold Record from 1968 into the early ’70s sold approximately 600,000 copies.
Then the prices started going up regularly.
We may never know the truth
The actual sales figures of any album that received an RIAA Gold Record Award prior to 1975 cannot be precisely known. Unless the album has been re-certified and upgraded to a new RIAA Award since 1975, its sales figures can only be estimated.
These examples are random and are based on errors that I found while researching other articles. They’ll have to suffice because I’m not looking for others.
A Gift From A Flower To A Garden
Donovan’s 1967 album A GIFT FROM A FLOWER TO A GARDEN was pop and rock’s first truly “deluxe” album: aside from being a boxed set, it featured an extraordinary photo on the front cover that required a six-color separation rather than the usual four-color process. The box also included a folio with twelve sheets of lyrics and drawings. This was one of the most expensive albums ever manufactured at the time.
This truly deluxe package carried a deluxe manufacturer’s retail price that dramatically lowered the number of copies old required to meet the million-dollar mark for an RIAA Gold Record Award.
In its entry on A GIFT FROM A FLOWER TO A GARDEN, Wikipedia wrote, “The album earned a Gold Record award for half-a-million sales during 1970.” This is not correct: with its higher retail price, the boxed set required sales of approximately 300,000 boxes to qualify for a Gold Record. 10
As Epic has never requested the RIAA to re-certify the album for an upgrade to the newer Gold Record Award, there is no way to know if AGFAFTAG has even sold a half-million copies in the forty-nine years since its release!
Wheels Of Fire
Read the inscription on the second image above: “Presented to Cream to commemorate the sales of more than one million dollars worth of Atco Records.” This Gold Record was presented on July 22, 1968. At that time, $1,000,000 represented sales of approximately 300,000-400,000 copies of a two-record set, depending on the manufacturer’s list price.
Now Wikipedia states that WOF “reached #3 in the United Kingdom and #1 in the United States, becoming the first platinum-selling double album.”
This is a confusing statement, as the word platinum in that context was meaningless in the ’60s. And the word platinum in the context of double-albums has had several meanings over the past forty years.
I assume that what the Wiki editors meant was that WHEELS OF FIRE “reached #3 in the United Kingdom and #1 in the United States, becoming the first double-album to sell a million copies through combined global sales.”
Except that there is no evidence that WOF has actually sold a million copies; Joseph Murrells didn’t include it in his book, and there is no documentation on the Internet that level of sales has ever been reached. 11
Maybe what the Wikipedians meant was that WOF “reached #3 in the United Kingdom and #1 in the United States, becoming the first double-album to sell a half-million copies through combined global sales and can, therefore, be counted as a platinum if we count each of the records in the album as one separate unit.” Yes, that sounds about right.
Go look up WHEELS OF FIRE on the Gold & Platinum search on the RIAA site: they got the July 22, 1968, for the album’s certification for a Gold Record Award correct. But under the section titled Certified Unit, the RIAA lists “0.5 million.” And as we know by the award above, it was not for 500,000 sales, but for $1,000,000. Nothing else.
There is no way to know what the actual sales of the album were at the time of the certification without knowing the manufacturer’s list price for it, which I have not been able to find. But there are two reasonable choices: $9.98, the highest price associated with double-albums (and twice that of a standard single-record album), or a middle price such as $7.98.
• If the album was listed for $9.98, then it would have had to sell 304,000 copies to qualify for an RIAA Gold Record Award in 1968.
• If the album was listed for $7.98, then it would have had to sell 417,000 copies to qualify for an RIAA Gold Record Award in 1968.
As of this date, the Warner Music Group/Atlantic Records Group (or whoever owns whomever) has not sought certification for a Platinum Record Award, implying the requisite 500,000 copies in domestic sales has not been reached.
The White Album
As successful as WHEELS OF FIRE was, it wasn’t even close to being the biggest selling double-album of the ’60s. That honor belongs to THE BEATLES, affectionately, and universally, known as “The White Album.” It reputedly sold more than 2,000,000 copies (not “units”) in its first twelve months of release!
For this astounding accomplishment, it received the same RIAA Gold Record Award as every other album that sold $1,000,000 at the wholesale level. Nothing more.
That is, it received the same award as WHEELS OF FIRE, which it outsold by a factor of five-to-one by the end of 1969 (and I am being conservative). 12
Despite this unprecedented achievement, Capitol didn’t request the Platinum Award certification for this album until 1991!
The Wonder Of You
In May 1970, Elvis received a Gold Record Award for sales of 1,000,000 copies of The Wonder Of You. Yet when RCA upgraded Presley’s catalog in 1992, they couldn’t find the sales receipts that showed that original million, so they couldn’t upgrade this single from its original Gold Record status of 1,000,000 copies sold to the new Platinum Record status of 1,000,000 copies sold.
If you go to the RIAA website and type “the wonder of you” into the Gold & Platinum search, it returns, “Unfortunately that search produced no certifications.”
If you scroll through the Elvis listings, you will find The Wonder Of You in the 1970 listings! There it informs you that the record has only been certified Gold in 1970 and then for 500,000 sales—despite the fact that no record was ever given a Gold Record for sales of 500,000 copies before 1974!
Right, if we can’t trust the bloody RIAA to get it right on their own website, why should we expect writers to get it right in their articles, right?!!?
Conclusion and advice
Consider this: how does anyone have a sane conversation about record sales in the ’60s based on RIAA Awards when not a single Motown record received a Gold Record Award in the ’60s. Using the RIAA Awards as a deciding factor, one could easily and reasonably conclude that Motown was not a particularly successful record company—just about the stupidest conclusion one could ever reach!
So, writers and “content providers” that clog up the Internet with observations based on ignorance, here’s my advice (the simplest one first): Stop mentioning sales figures when you mention RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards in your articles.
This advice is more difficult (but more rewarding): Stop mentioning RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards as meaningful sales indicators in your articles without understanding the Awards and taking into consideration the circumstances surrounding each one.
About all those gold records on the Internet
There are lots of gold record awards on the Internet, many of them for sale. If you’re in the market for one as a buyer, know these three things:
1. Most of them are not legitimate RIAA or even in-house awards; they are wall decorations.
2. There have been many styles of the actual physical RIAA Awards, including the wooden frames, the backing in the frames, and even the RIAA symbol on the plaque. Many records that were originally awarded in one format can be found as legitimate awards in later formats. Know which format is which if you’re spending big bucks.
3. There are fake/counterfeit RIAA Gold Record Awards. Some of the images on this page may be of those fake awards.
Remember, that in 49 BC, as Caesar led his army across the Rubicon River, he famously said “Alea iacta est, caveat emptor.” Roughly translated, that means “The die is cast, so let the buyer beware.” If Julius said it, we should all give it good heed indeed.
FEATURED IMAGE: The first record to be certified by the RIAA and award an “official” Gold Record was Perry Como’s Catch A Falling Star. The record peaked at #2 on the Cash Box Top 100 and reached #9 on Billboard’s Top 100. The b-side, Magic Moments, hit #21 and #27 respectively on the same surveys. The photo at the top of this page is of Perry, who was also a movie star and one of television’s first big stars.
1 For this article, the word album refers mostly to LP records. The word single refers to seven-inch, 45 rpm records with one track per side. I don’t address the various permutations of singles of the past forty years, such as one-sided singles, twelve-inch singles, cassette singles, CD singles, etc.
2 This article has been brewing inside me for a long time. I was finally motivated to address the problem during the research I conducted on “Double-Albums of the 1950s and ’60s.” Without exception, every “fact” regarding Gold and Platinum Records awarded to double-albums issued during the first twenty-five years of the LP was either incorrect, incomplete, or misleading. That doesn’t mean I’m in a hurry to write another one about how the RIAA counts double-albums. (Besides, it will make the Awards look even loopier than they are.)
3 The bit about working with unions is a loaded statement: the open and active hostility for the working class and their unions in this country since the Reagan Revolution was not in play. The RIAA simply worked to find ways to better work with unions (not on how to break them or cheat them).
4 For the word lobbying you may freely substitute “bribing” or “paying off” or “buying.” It won’t hurt the article any.
5 To avoid confusion throughout this article, I only capitalized RIAA awards (“Gold Records”). In-house awards or other references are in lower case (“gold records”).
6 This does not mean that the next time that you visit the site of some aging rockabilly artist who issued a single on Unbelievably Obscure Records in 1962 and he claims that it sold two million that you should believe him.
7 In 1957, RCA Victor announced that Elvis had sold 12,000,000 singles the year before. They noted that less than 10% of those singles were 78s. By the end of 1958, the few 78s manufactured in the US were mostly blues and rhythm & blues records for the black market.
8 I adapted these three paragraphs from the article “A Brief History of the Sony Classical Label” on the official Sony website. Sony has since removed the original article from its site.
9 This data was taken from “R.C.A. Cuts L-P Prices; Many by 30%” in the Chicago Daily Tribune on December 28, 1954.
10 Actually, there are several things wrong with Wiki’s sentence, “The album earned a Gold Record award for half-a-million sales during 1970.” First, it didn’t sell that many copies. Second, as written, the sentence says that the album sold 500,000 copies in one year (1970). To be accurate it should read, “In 1970, the album received a Gold Record Award for sales of a million dollars.”
11 Joseph Murrells: Million Selling Records – From The 1900s To The 1960s (Arco Publishers, 1986).
12 My saying I am conservative about anything is an in-joke for Jerry Richards.