You probably already heard of so-called “Gold” or “Platinum” records – this is what’s usually called “certifications” in the music industry, and those certifications are calculated based on the total sales number per country. Each (larger) country has its own institution that’s responsible for those certifications – in the US it’s the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), and in the UK it’s the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) as well as their Official Charts Company (OCC) subsidiary.
If you compare certifications of current records with older records, then you should always keep in mind that the required sales numbers have been lowered in many countries during the past few decades, which means that some older Gold records actually performed better than some of today’s Platinum records. The same is true when comparing the total amount of money generated by a record, as inflation is often not taken into account.
In the US, the RIAA currently applies the following rules to singles:
- Gold when it ships 500,000 copies.
- Platinum when it ships 1,000,000 copies.
- Multi-Platinum when it ships at least 2,000,000 copies.
The artists with the biggest number of certified singles in the US are Elvis Presley, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lil Wayne, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, Madonna, Beyoncé, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Carrie Underwood, The Temptations, R. Kelly, Usher, and Chris Brown. There are many new names on this list, so it seems that either singles still sell well today, or that it’s always the same few artists who sell well.
The rules for albums in the US are:
- Gold album when it ships 500,000 units.
- Platinum album when it ships 1,000,000 units.
- Double-Platinum album when it ships 2,000,000 units.
- Multi-Platinum album when it ships 3,000,000 units.
- Diamond album when it ships 10,000,000 units.
As mentioned a few times already, album sales are way more important than singles sales, for both the record companies as well as for the artists.
The artists with the biggest number of certified albums in the US are AC/DC, Aerosmith, Alabama, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Bee Gees, Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffett, Mariah Carey, Johnny Cash, Kenny Chesney, Chicago, Eric Clapton, John Denver, Neil Diamond, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Isley Brothers.
Different names, older names, and a different overall level of quality.
The most successful albums (all with Diamond certification and all pre-2000s) in the US are:
- Thriller – Michael Jackson (1982)
- Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) – Eagles (1976)
- Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II – Billy Joel (1985)
- Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin (1971)
- The Wall – Pink Floyd (1979)
- Back In Black – AC/DC (1980)
- Double Live – Garth Brooks (1998)
- Rumours – Fleetwood Mac (1977)
- Come On Over – Shania Twain (1997)
- The Beatles – The Beatles (1968)
As of February 2016, the RIAA is taking audio and video streams (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Vimeo,…) into account when calculating the sales numbers of singles and albums, where 150 streams equal a single purchase and 1,500 streams equal an album purchase. This is a very stupid idea of course, as this clearly falsifies the numbers and it will also have a very negative effect on the entire album charts. Album buyers are more likely music lovers than those who just stream music – if YouTube clicks will now count as album sales, then this means that cheap pop crap will play a much larger role in album statistics in future, even if nobody ever bought those records. In other words, this is yet another very, very stupid idea the recording industry came up with.
In the UK, the BPI / OCC currently applies the following rules for singles:
- Silver when it ships 200,000 copies.
- Gold when it ships at least 400,000 copies.
- Platinum when it ships 600,000 copies.
And the rules for albums are:
- Silver when it ships 60,000 units.
- Gold when it ships at least 100,000 units.
- Platinum when it ships 300,000 units.
In other countries the rules are different of course. The smaller the country, the lower the amount of sales needed to get a certification. Certifications should be more important than charts to you, as they reflect the total amount of sales, even over a longer period of time, while the charts may sometimes only reflect a short peak in popularity. In some countries both physical sales and online sales will be combined, while other countries have separate listings for online sales or even video streams for example.
But be careful: You may only receive a certification if your record has been published by a label that is a member of national and / or international recording associations. If you produce an album that will sell 100 million copies and thus becomes the most successful record of all time, then it still won’t even be a Gold record if you released it on your own, or if you have a deal with a record company that’s not part of the right network.
Sounds weird, but it’s true. The best example for this problem is New Order’s famous Blue Monday, one of the most influential songs of the 1980s which went on to become the best-selling 12” single of all time, with 1.16 million copies sold in the UK alone. So it’s one of the best-selling singles ever, but it never got a Gold certification, because Factory Records was not a member of the British Phonographic Industry association. That’s how stupid things in the music industry are. It doesn’t make sense to get much more into the details here, as it’s probably way too early for you to worry about all of this. You should be aware that you need to sell a lot to get a certification, so this may not yet be interesting for you at this moment of time, although this may change in future if you’re doing really well.
So there are two important things you will absolutely have to remember:
- Albums will be more important than singles if you want to create art and if you want to make money, even if so-called “experts” will tell you the opposite.
- Forget about peak-based chart success, focus on selling your records over a longer period of time instead.