RIAA certification  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In the United States, the Recording Industry Association of America awards certification based on the number of albums and singles sold through retail and other ancillary markets. Other countries have similar awards (see music recording sales certification). Certification is not automatic; for an award to be made, the record label must request certification and pay a fee to have the sales of the recording audited. The audit is conducted against net shipments after returns (most often an artist's royalty statement is used), which includes albums sold directly to retailers and one-stops, direct to consumer sales (music clubs and mail order) and other outlets.

Presently, an American RIAA-certified gold record is a single or album that has sold 500,000 units (records, tapes or compact discs). Originally, the requirement for a gold single was one million units sold and a gold album represented $1 million in sales (at wholesale value). In 1975, the additional requirement of 500,000 units sold was added for gold albums. Reflecting growth in record sales, the platinum award was instituted in 1976 for albums selling one million units and singles selling two million units. The multi-platinum award was instituted in 1984, signifying multiple platinum levels of albums and singles. In 1989, the sales thresholds for singles were reduced to 500,000 for gold and 1,000,000 for platinum, reflecting a decrease in sales of singles. In 1992, RIAA began counting each disc in a multi-disc set as one unit toward certification. Because of these changes in criteria, the sales level associated with a particular award depends on when the award was made.

Nielsen SoundScan figures are not used in RIAA certification; the RIAA system predates Nielsen SoundScan and includes sales outlets Nielsen misses. Prior to Nielsen SoundScan, RIAA certification was the only audited and verifiable system for tracking music sales in the U.S.; it is still the only system capable of tracking 100% of sales (albeit as shipments less returns, not actual sales like Nielsen SoundScan). This system has allowed, at times, for record labels to promote an album as gold or platinum simply based on large shipments. For instance, in 1978 the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack shipped platinum but was a sales bust, with two million returns. Similarly, all four solo albums by the members of Kiss simultaneously shipped platinum that same year but did not reach the top 20 of the Billboard 200 album chart. The following year, the RIAA began requiring 120 days from the release date before recordings were eligible for certification, although that requirement has been reduced over the years and currently stands at 30 days. More recently, Sony was roundly criticized in 1995 for hyping Michael Jackson's double album HIStory as five times platinum, based on shipments of 2.5 million and using the RIAA's recently adopted practice of counting each disc toward certification, while SoundScan was reporting only 1.3 million copies sold. A similar discrepancy between shipments and sales was reported with The Lion King soundtrack.

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