MOST OF THE INFORMATION about the criteria required for an RIAA Gold Record awarded an album from 1958 through 1974 and singles through 1988 found on the internet is incorrect. This applies to almost every website I have seen, especially Wikipedia. Believe it or not, this even applies to the RIAA’s own website! 1
This article will assist you in understanding RIAA awards for albums issued before 1975 and singles issued before 1989. It addresses the basic criteria that were used by the RIAA for awarding Gold and Platinum Records to singles and LP albums. The focus is on the awards from 1958 through 1974, during which their criteria remained stable.
This article will help you understand the RIAA awards for albums and singles issued between 1958 and 1989.
A lot of changes have occurred since the RIAA awarded its first Gold Record to Perry Como in 1958. A few major changes are not addressed, such as the certification of extend-play EP albums and the addition of digital downloads to sales totals.
Most of the websites I have seen screw up the information when mentioning Gold Record Awards for albums. Most apply post-1974 criteria standards to awards certified from 1958 through 1974. They almost always mention the number of copies sold, which is often incorrect or exaggerated. (There are, of course, some exceptions to this blanket statement.)
Note: This article was previously published on this blog as “About RIAA Gold And Platinum Record Awards.” As I made several changes in the text and several changes in the images, I retitled the article “Understanding RIAA Gold And Platinum Record Awards.”
The nutshell version of this article
The entire 3,000 words of this article can be summed up in four statements of fewer than one hundred words:
1. From 1958 through 1974, the RIAA Gold Record Award for albums was based solely on dollar amounts.
2. From 1958 through 1974, the number of albums sold was irrelevant for certification for an RIAA Gold Record Award.
3. RIAA Gold and Platinum Record Awards for albums are not based on the number of copies sold, but the number of “units.”
4. Any time you read a reference to an RIAA Gold Record Award made before 1975 that states the number of copies sold for certification, you are probably reading a source that doesn’t know much about RIAA awards.
I reiterate: No standard LP record was ever certified for an RIAA Gold Record Award based on “the sale of more than 500,000 copies” before 1975. Nonetheless, that is a common statement on countless websites, including the RIAA’s site. 2
The RIAA according to the RIAA
The RIAA was formed in 1952 as a united front representing the interests of the larger record companies. 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.”
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. Here is the introduction to the RIAA that greets one on their 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 mentioned in this introduction.
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. 3
In-house awards are not fake awards
Record companies were giving awards to artists for exceptional sales achievements for years but on February 10, 1942, RCA Victor presented Glenn Miller with the industry’s first known gold record. It was an award for sales of 1,000,000 copies of Chattanooga Choo Choo on their Bluebird Records imprint. (Curiously, RCA has never submitted this record to the RIAA for official certification.) 4
Other companies followed suit and gold record awards became a fixture in the industry. The sales that were being acknowledged were not confined to the US: a million-selling record is a 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!
These awards are now called in-house awards and for many records, these are the only sales indicators that we have to go on. Despite the prominence of RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards in the record industry, record companies still make and present special in-house awards to their artists for all sorts of achievements not covered by those RIAA awards. 5
Gold Record Award for singles
The RIAA took an interest in all of this and instituted its 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.
Initially, a single had to sell 1,000,000 copies within the United States. The RIAA counted all sales of 78s (which was almost obsolete as a viable commercial format in 1958) and 45s to wholesalers, retailers, and jukebox vendors. The RIAA also counted free copies given to retailers for placing large orders, as they were more a discount to encourage large orders than actual freebies. 6
The RIAA did not count free copies given for promotional purposes, notably those shipped to radio stations for airplay. These never counted for more than a few thousand per title.
With the increasing lack of interest in singles as a medium, sales plummeted over the years. This was not good for the industry as there were few million-selling singles so few Gold Record Awards for singles. Even records that topped the charts were often selling comfortably below the seven-figure mark!
In 1989, the RIAA lowered the criteria dramatically. A single only needed to sell only 500,000 copies for a Gold Record Award! Somewhere along the way, digital downloads were added to the count. 7
Platinum Record Award for singles
Many hit singles had sold more than 2,000,000 copies in the past by the time the RIAA introduced the official Platinum Record Award in 1976. But the first current hit to pass that mark and be certified for the first of these new awards was Johnny Taylor’s Disco Lady. Unfortunately, many media outlets reporting on this new award made it sound like Disco Lady was, in fact, the first single to reach this lofty level. Forty years later and that erroneous belief still, pops up on the internet.
In 1976, the RIAA introduced the Platinum Record Award for singles which sold 2,000,000 copies in the US.
In 1989, the RIAA completely redefined a Platinum Record for a single to mean only 1,000,000 copies sold. Somewhere along the way, digital downloads were added to the count.
Gold Record 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.
Initially, an LP album had to sell $1,000,000 at the manufacturer’s wholesale price to qualify for an RIAA Gold Record Award. The wholesale price was determined by using one-third (or 33⅓) of the retail price.
The number of copies sold was irrelevant.
As the retail price of albums rose, the number of records needed to reach the magic million mark got smaller. On January 17, 1974, Bob Dylan’s PLANET WAVES received an immediate Gold Record Award on January 22, 1974. The problem was that the latest increase in the price of new LPs meant that the Award was made to an album with fewer than 500,000 sales!
Elektra/Asylum raised the suggested retail price on standard single record albums of its top artists to $6.97. That gave the RIAA a wholesale price of $2.10 per album, which allowed the Dylan record to “go gold” with only 476,190 units sold.
This caused some consternation in the industry and the RIAA set about tweaking the rules. Beginning in 1975, an album had to meet two criteria:
1. An album must sell at least $1,000,000 at the wholesale level.
2. An album must sell at least 500,000 units.
Platinum Record Awards for albums
Not one single or album received an RIAA Platinum Record Award in the ’60s. Why? Because there was no such award until 1976! Starting sometime in the mid-1960s, 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:
1. An album must sell at least $2,000,000 at the wholesale level.
2. An album must sell at least 1,000,000 units.
In 1985, the RIAA introduced the Multi-Platinum Award for sales levels in multiples of 1,000,000. Wholesale dollar amounts were also a part of the award and were counted in multiples of $2,000,000.
For a 2xMulti-Platinum Record Award:
1. An album must sell at least $4,000,000 at the wholesale level.
2. An album must sell at least 2,000,000 units.
For a 3xMulti-Platinum Record Award:
1. An album must sell at least $6,000,000 at the wholesale level.
2. An album must sell at least 3,000,000 units.
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 before 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.
Understanding RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards
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.
FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page was cropped from this photo. After the RIAA introduced a Platinum Record Award in 1975, a slew of hits were certified for this prestigious award. This Platinum Award was presented to Queen’s manager Pete Brown to commemorate the sale of more than 2,000,000 copies of the group’s 1977 smash We Are The Champions.
1 Yes, indeed, the RIAA site gets it wrong, too. Due to how their data is paid out, a single LP’s sales level can only be rendered in units sold, not in dollars. So, for Gold Records awarded before 1975, each title is listed as selling 500,000 units despite some selling as many as 999,999 copies! (And don’t even get me started on the amount of misinformation on Wikipedia about RIAA certification and sales levels.)
2 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. 1975 was the first year in which the RIAA awarded Gold Records to an album based on both dollar sales and unit sales (“the sale of more than 500,000 copies”). Before that, a few albums received Gold Records for sales of fewer than a half-million, but they were multiple-record albums with a higher list price.
3 For the word lobbying you may freely substitute bribing, paying off, or even buying and it won’t hurt the article any.
4 To avoid confusion throughout this article, I only capitalized RIAA awards (“Gold Records”). In-house awards or other references are in lowercase letters (“gold records”).
5 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 that he claims sold 5,000,000 copies you should believe him.
6 In 1957, RCA Victor announced that Elvis had sold more than 10,000,000 singles in 1956, of which fewer than 10% 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.
7 And in a love that made little sense, they eventually made this new award retroactive, allowing companies to have singles from decades before—when the big hits were selling millions—now eligible for a “new” Gold Record for sales of half a million. But that’s another story.
Mystically liberal Virgo enjoys long walks alone in the city at night in the rain with an umbrella and a flask of 10-year-old Laphroaig who strives to live by the maxim, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a college dropout (twice!). Occupationally, I have been a bartender, jewelry engraver, bouncer, landscape artist, and FEMA crew chief following the Great Flood of ’72 (and that was a job that I should never, ever have left).
I am also the final author of the original O’Sullivan Woodside price guides for record collectors and the original author of the Goldmine price guides for record collectors. As such, I was often referred to as the Price Guide Guru, and—as everyone should know—it behooves one to heed the words of a guru. (Unless, of course, you’re the Beatles.)