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So you want to be in a rock band?: Setting the record straight

Rose Cora Perry | Interrobang | Lifestyles | November 26th, 2007

Recently, while reading a copy of what I thought to be a credible and well-researched music magazine, I was greatly appalled when I stumbled across an article that inaccurately detailed the makings of a gold album, attributing this status to an independent band's latest disc whose sales have barely even scratched the surface. While 5000 discs may seem like a triumph for an indie act, I have it on good authority that not even 10,000 in sales will merit a band “a pat on the back” from a record label in today's harsh and competitive market.

After reading this piece it occurred to me that if a so-called entertainment journalist could make such a problematic mistake, I'm almost positive that several indie bands out there could do the same.

Although each territory has enacted individual means for ranking record sales, almost all of these systems follow in the footsteps of the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) method which was pioneered in 1958 in order to monitor the sales of vinyl LPs. For the purposes of this article (and to avoid confusion), I will strictly be referencing figures that denote album rankings in our home territory cited by the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA), and the certification process as illustrated by the RIAA method.

While Gold status was once awarded to artists whose sales exceeded 500,000 copies (or $1 million in sales) of a given album back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, today's Gold rankings are attributed to a significantly lower sales target; that of, 50,000. The impetus behind the modification of these sales targets is tied closely to the expansion of the music industry (well, consumerism in general) and more recently, the introduction of the Internet and digital sales.

Initially associations, such as the RIAA, did not quite know how to credit Internet downloads of songs and/or albums in relation to physical CD sales largely because the costs of manufacturing, shipping and retail cuts are eliminated, and thus digital downloaders can afford to sell an artist's work for a significantly lower amount, while still producing a profit margin. Additionally, the purchasing of album singles has recently expanded into a larger market (largely due to the hotly debated continual decline in the quality of albums as a whole over the past 10 years) with the Internet acting as the perfect purchasing medium due to its ease and accessibility.

But, with the introduction of the Internet and digital downloads, also came the genesis of digital piracy making it increasingly difficult for artists to generate high sales rankings based on their Internet music consumers alone.

While 50,000 physical CD sales will merit an artist this ranking, only 20,000 downloads serves as the online sales equivalent, and a single itself may be ranked Gold if it reaches a mere 5,000 units in sales whether through traditional or electronic means. With all of these varying numbers serving to entitle an artist to essentially the SAME rating, it's easy to see how someone could improperly allot this status to a musical act!

So how exactly does the process of album certification work? Well, for one thing it is not automatic. Record labels are required to pay a fee (between $350 and $450 for RIAA members and non-members respectively), on behalf of their artists, in order to have the artist's album sales audited by the RIAA's official accounting company of over 20 years, Gelfand, Rennert & Feldman.

“The audit calculates what product has been shipped for sale, net after returns, versus product used for promotional purposes, for the life of the release... An artist's Gold or Platinum award represents sales through retail, record clubs, rackjobbers and all other ancillary markets that legitimately distribute music. Once a title's sales has been audited and verified as having reached requisite levels, a formal certification report is issued and sent to the title's record company.” (As outlined by the RIAA's official website).

So then what's the difference between the RIAA's auditing process and submitting one's sales to the Neilson Soundscan charts?

Although Canadian artists are strongly encouraged to issue all of their off-stage and retail sales to Soundscan for reporting, interestingly enough, the RIAA does NOT use these figures for their calculations in regards to album rankings. Why you ask? Well, according to the RIAA, they feel that Soundscan's records are less reliable as their system is newer, whereas the RIAA has a history of over 40 years.

Moreover, Soundscan figures strictly measure over-the-counter sales at music retail locations and off-stage sales, whereas the sales audits conducted by the RIAA encompass a far greater avenue of non-traditional music sales tracking including business generated from non-retail record clubs, mail order houses, specialty stores, direct marketing outlets, TV-advertised albums and internet downloads. So then what's the point of issuing one's sales via Soundscan at all?

Well, the simple fact remains that independent artists, more often than not, generate the highest amount of album sales directly after live performances, an avenue that the RIAA does NOT take into account for its calculation. If an independent act generates extremely high off-stage sales, then they have the potential of attaining powerful promotional opportunities as their sales records will be reported in the Billboard Charts. It's also important to note that if an act does manage to get signed to a label with Soundscan reporting capabilities, all of their generated sales previous to their record label signing will NOT count towards their total sales of a given album.

Will these ratings be likely to decline as the problem of digital piracy persists? I can only assume that they will. With an overabundance of supply, and a waning degree of demand, it would seem to me that artists today are facing a serious threat of being put into extinction. Can you think of any other profession in which rendered services are guiltlessly and unapologetically stolen by consumers? I didn't think so.
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