In these tumultuous times, is the musician’s benchmark still the ever-coveted Gold record? Or, more importantly, should it be? Aside from the obvious reward (money), surely there can be no greater satisfaction than quantifying the winning over of a large audience and hanging it on your wall, right?
These plaques do more than just stroke egos; they are the measuring sticks for the musical community. Without them, we have one less standardized gauge for success in our industry. This may seem irrelevant to the anarchists out there, but if we think a bit past our natural contempt for the self-congratulatory, we might see that losing yet another staple of our industry to the Internet could have great repercussions for all artists.
Imagine a world where this “pay-what-you-please” or “pay-nothing-at-all” distribution fad shows itself to be of little value to people that aren’t Trent Reznor and average artists decide that the next step is to bypass conventional distributors totally and adhere to some very creative sales models that likely do not involve the publishing of statistics. I don’t think it’s too farfetched of a scenario to entertain—there are probably tax advantages if nothing else, and the prevalent “screw the record industry” attitude many artists have (including myself, sometimes) could easily grow to the level of completely cutting off the hand that crowns them. After all, the point has been made that some bands don’t need the record industry like we all once thought we did, so why not cut that middleman out completely?
Because some form of oversight/governance can be a good thing. Case in point: Back in the day, a record company would provide Gold and Platinum records to their top artists, much like “employee of the month” awards. It was a token of appreciation for an artist who, in a sense, had become a partner with the label (Elvis Presley receiving his 1956 Platinum award was one of the first examples). But such awards had no real public credibility so, in 1958, the RIAA stepped in and took over the task of issuing awards based solely on sales. Since then, those within the music industry and those on the outside (i.e. the general public) have had a legitimate criterion to judge the success of an artist.
Financial achievements aside, such a standard may be subjective. But let’s pretend for a moment that it’s not. With many mega-stars inking deals outside the sphere governed by the RIAA, who will be the next great arbitrator?
WHAT IS A “SALE” ANYWAY?
Truth be told, Gold and Platinum awards have not ever been based on actual units sold. The organization takes liberties with how they define the crucial word “sale.” Instead, “sales” are based on the amount of units shipped to stores. I have spoken loudly and often to all who will listen to me about why this is stupid, but its relevancy here should be obvious to the people that, bound in a traditional contract, stand to be paid only for units that are actually sold. However, the question at hand is not how to reform the RIAA, but how these practices will be adapted to the Internet, because digital distributors of music don’t ship anything. They email a single file of metadata to servers.
Why base an award on that, especially as such would likely only represent the biggest outlets (e.g., Yahoo, Amazon, iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody, E-Music)?
You may ask, “Can’t we just track the activity from the hundreds of available services and see who’s getting the most clicks and then award ‘Gold and Platinum Click Awards?’” Good question. Hypothetically we probably could, and with all the wild promises made by tech companies you’d think creating an integrated database that everybody just uploads to once a month would be child’s play. The truth, however, is that the cost would be staggering, and therefore nobody is jumping to provide that kind of service.
Then there is the view that many companies (Wal-Mart, for example) are not interested in releasing such information because it doesn’t serve their interests. Considering that the most widely employed sales tracking system in the record industry—a barcode scanner known as SoundScan—doesn’t track many online stores and has no way of accounting for millions of “play events” from subscription services, artists are already having difficulties accessing crucial information like how many units they are really moving in the virtual realm. In the future, they may have no way to quantify their success to the public. Think about it: Does anybody really know exactly how successful Radiohead’s In Rainbows experiment was except for the band themselves?
And what about statistics that are even trickier to verify, like P2P file sharing? Obviously illegal downloads are not “sales” in the literal sense, but consider basic fairness: Should an artist with 100,000 clicks on MySpace be considered more significant than a group with 75,000 downloads on Lime Wire, or vice-versa?
These are tough questions, but we know one thing for sure: In today’s world, physical sales of an album are only a tip of the distribution iceberg. Many new uses for music involve licensing of the content and not physical ownership. Thousands of times an hour a piece of music may be streamed, pipelined, and cached via digital distribution systems into millions of websites, new-school jukeboxes at your local bar, maybe even the waiting room of that really hip proctologist you go to. None of these are “sales,” as traditionally understood, but all of them generate revenue and royalties.
HOW DO WE DEFINE THE MAGIC NUMBER?
Next up for debate is the issue of “threshold.” Historically, the RIAA certifies a record as Gold when it “sells” 500,000 (the threshold for a Platinum record is one million). Other countries vary. In Canada, for example, Platinum status is awarded after only 100,000 units are “sold.” This partially explains all of Brian Adams’ awards. The official reason: These plateaus are based on population. Fewer people mean fewer sales, and so it would not be fair to have a threshold based on such hard numbers.
How would this be applied to the hypothetical “Gold and Platinum Click Awards?” Do we take into consideration the entire population of everyone using the Internet? What about the fact that some (richer) parts of the online world have far higher bandwidth and faster servers, thus greater volume of downloads. So instead of population, should we be talking about megabytes-per-second (mbps) as a parameter for territory?
HOW WILL THIS PLAY OUT?
And who can we trust? The answer is probably not the RIAA, though they clearly have served a purpose, skewed as it may be. Still, who can trust them to set an honest threshold when they don’t even recognize a significant portion of the industry—namely, downloads of independent music. To quote an EQ reader (who inspired this piece), “Does an industry which is below the radar still need the radar?”
iTunes has an objective ranking for what is moving off their servers. Big Champagne offers a chart of much of the P2P activity. Even garage band heroes CD Baby have a page for the artists that have sold more than a couple of dozen units through their site. So, I asked the forward—thinking RIAA (note the sarcasm) how they are preparing for the future—excuse me, the present. They said, and I quote, “[It’s] certainly something we are giving a lot of thought to.”
Cool. Keep on thinking about it. Ready your fiddles.
I’m having a vision of the near future. I see an artist pictured with her best friend. The friend is her manager and Webmaster. The caption congratulates them for a “Gold Click Award” from Amazon.com for 500,000 play events. The two gals don’t mention the RIAA, Best Buy, or any label. They are thanking Facebook.
They are 13 years old.
Moses Avalon wishes to thank Jeff for the inspiration to write this piece and to direct readers to the “Letters to the Editor” forum on www.eqmag.com to further discuss this subject.