The subject of low record sales isn’t news anymore. In fact, it’s such a non-news issue that it’s become the standard mindset for music media. Whenever it does become a topic of discussion, it is due to a new angle depicting the same armageddon of the music industry.
This week, it was widely reported that 2014 has become the first year no albums have been certified platinum since the RIAA began issuing platinum certifications in 1976. Basically, album sales have dropped so much that no albums have sold a million copies.
But it isn’t really that simple, nor is it really the full story. Here are a few things to help put this into context:
Album sales are still dropping
It’s true that album sales are continuing to drop with current predictions putting 2014 at around 14% lower than those of 2013. But again, that’s hardly news or surprising, especially with music streaming continuing to play a bigger role in how people experience recorded music.
Certifications are units shipped, not sold
When something is certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum, it’s referring to the number of albums shipped to retailers – before being bought by a customer. In theory, an album can certified platinum without ever selling a single copy. There have also been cases in the 90s when albums were “over-certified”, meaning the certification level was significantly higher than its actual sales total. Even today, many albums are certified gold or platinum before actually reaching the respective threshold in sales.
Certifications can be promo tools
Record labels must pay for an audit and the certification. An album certification costs $350 for RIAA members and $450 for non-members. For some labels, a certification is an opportunity for promotion, or bragging rights to promote how successful one of their artists or albums are. It isn’t required that an album’s level of certification is reflective of its sales or shipping total. Eminem‘s album Recovery has sold 4.5 million copies but its most recent certification is triple-platinum – 3 million shipped. Also, labels often group certifications together under one audit to save money so albums may often get certified multiple times simultaneously. Using Eminem again, his last album The Marshall Mathers LP 2 was certified gold, platinum and double platinum on the same day in June 2014.
But wait. If it was certified in June of THIS year, why is it being reported that no albums were certified Platinum in 2014?
No albums released in 2014 have been certified platinum
The reports are mixing actual album sales with certifications. And what the reports fail to mention is that albums have in fact been certified platinum in 2014, they were just those released prior to this year. Most notably, the soundtrack to Frozen has been certified triple-platinum, while Beyoncé‘s late 2013 release was certified double-platinum and Pure Heroine by Lorde platinum.
Across all album sales in 2014, as the report should have said, only Frozen has sold over a million copies in 2014. In the case of Beyoncé and Lorde, sales of their albums were split across two years with their 2014 totals being under a million.
It could still happen
Most high-profile albums get released in the final four months of the year, so it’s premature to predict doom that no album will sell a million copies when the biggest sales period is still to come. Two anticipated big selling albums have yet to hit stores: albums by Taylor Swift and One Direction.
Taylor Swift’s last two albums sold one million copies in their first week of release. One million copies sold is more than enough for a platinum certification (if Taylor’s label applies for one – but they have to wait 30 days from its release to do so. RIAA rules.) Early estimates for her new album 1989 have it at about 750,000 copies for its first week. That’s still enough of a head-start to reach a million before December 31.
2014 has also been skimpy on new albums by major players prior to the fall season, when they would have had a better chance at reaching the million by the end of the year. Currently, the biggest selling album released this year is Coldplay‘s Ghost Stories, which is close to the 750k mark. Coldplay has been a reliable seller in the past but this record failed to reach the same level as previous ones.
Meanwhile in Canada
If we shift our focus north to Canada, it’s slightly less of an alarm as several 2014-releases have been certified platinum. G I R L by Pharrell Williams, x by Ed Sheeran, Ghost Stories by Coldplay and Quebec artist Serge Fiori‘s self-titled record.
In 2008, Canada changed its certification requirements for Platinum from 100,000 copies to 80,000 copies shipped. That means each of the albums listed above has shipped at least 80,000 copies since being released this year. The adjustments were in response to decreasing record sales in Canada.
There are no real solutions to dwindling album sales. The music industry is constantly changing as the way people enjoy music is constantly changes. But there are some ways to soften the blow.
The RIAA can follow in the steps of Music Canada (formerly CRIA) and adjust the requirements of certification levels to reflect the current landscape of album sales. If the threshold for a platinum album were 800,000 instead of one million, there would have been several platinum albums this year with more along the way.
Also, the current model of having major albums released in the last quarter is outdated. People aren’t committing as much money on albums as they used to. Chances are, if all the music a person would be willing to buy this year is released between September and November, they’d be less likely to get them all and opt for just a few choices than if they were spread out across the year.
Of course, all of this is insignificant since it’s just a different (inaccurate) way to tell the same story: album sales are still dropping.