As you might have read, the recent change to the RIAA’s formula for distributing its gold and platinum awards has been generating some controversy, particularly because including on-demand plays appears to provide scope for the awards to be manipulated. But wait, hasn’t this system always been open to tampering? And more to the point, does anyone even care anymore? Even the awards themselves seem like relics from a bygone age: the LP has undergone a resurgence in recent years, it’s true, but it remains a niche product that represents only a small fraction of our musical consumption. Its moment has passed, just like the body that awards it. And anyway, gold and platinum records have always been of questionable use in judging a record’s success; this change only makes them more so.
A curiosity that people don’t tend to appreciate about the RIAA’s gold and platinum certifications is that they’ve always been based on the number of records shipped, not necessarily the number that actually sells. (See here for their criteria.) This meant that companies could, in theory, ship a shitload of records that were never going to sell, and duly collect their gold record. Items returned to the distributor were subtracted from the figure, but then, if you’ve already ordered a heap of records, you’re far more likely to stick them in the bargain bin than give up on them completely.
The ins and outs of distribution agreements are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the awards have always been up for sale — to an extent, at least — to record companies who felt it was worth the PR/hype investment to ship a lot of records. In the days when awards and sales figures carried a lot of weight, it was probably at least worth thinking about doing this, in the same way that buying airplay was worth it when radio was the primary method of influencing consumers’ tastes.
The advent of digital downloads only increased the scope for manipulation, because — despite what the RIAA will argue when they’re trying to sue you into oblivion for file-sharing — they don’t cost the industry anything. (See this blog post, for example, which goes by the provocative title of “Getting a Gold Record by Selling Nothing,” and details how to do exactly that.) This week’s addition of streams — which may not correlate to sales at all — only increases the opportunity for such manipulation.
Spin published an excellent summary of the potential abuses this opens up — basically, there’s nothing to stop record companies from buying downloads to boost their numbers, or just running scripts to play a song again… and again… and… This means that the idea of getting a gold and platinum record will have less to do than ever with record sales and more to do with the industry massaging the numbers.
The good news is that, by now, no one even cares. When was the last time you heard anyone outside the music industry make a reference to a record going gold or platinum? These days, if they’re seeking to judge popularity, consumers and critics alike are far more likely to set store by word-of-mouth (“buzz,” if you must), or even Last.fm or iTunes play counts, than they are the RIAA’s figures, which were always ropey and have only gotten more so. There’s actually a smidgeon of pathos about the RIAA’s grand announcement of the change to their formula: “Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) today announced the integration of streams to its historic Gold & Platinum (G&P) Program, the industry’s premier award for recognizing artistic achievement in the marketplace.”
As with plenty of things that the RIAA does, the whole thing has a uniquely toxic stench of hubris and terminal cluelessness. Their awards aren’t the “industry’s premier award for recognizing artistic achievement in the marketplace,” any more than, say, the Billboard chart is the definitive measure of a record’s popularity and success. In a digital world, these things feel like relics of a bygone age — and one that won’t be greatly missed.