Platinum Album Certification Explained

The Surprising Facts About How the Recording Industry Counts Sales

Michael Jackson (1983) presented with the first Triple Platinum awards
Michael Jackson (1983) presented with the first Triple Platinum awards. Getty Images/Chris Walter

An album "goes platinum" once it has hit a certain number of sales. The exact number of album sales required to go platinum varies from country to country, depending on population. In the United States, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certifies single and album sales. The association tracks singles and albums sold in retail stores and those sold by mail order and other methods.

Although other organizations track album sales, RIAA is the first entity to have done so and continues to be the only entity equip to track 100 percent of an artist’s album sales.

History of the RIAA 

Founded in the 1950s, RIAA began certifying albums gold and made its first platinum certification, based on actual sales, in 1976. By 1992, each disc in a multi-disc set counted as one album toward platinum certification. Due to the radical changes in the way physical albums are manufactured -- and changes in the way that consumers buy music due to technology trends -- platinum album status varies, depending on when the certification was made.

What Makes an Album “Platinum”

In the United States, platinum certification means that an album has sold 1 million copies or that a single has sold 2 million copies. RIAA introduced multi-platinum certification in 1984 to acknowledge album sales higher than 1 million; the association also offers “Diamond” certification for albums selling 10 million copies or more.

But RIAA does not automatically certify music sales. Record labels that want the data for marketing purposes must request it from the association. To certify record sales, RIAA conducts audits of physical albums sold from information included in the musician’s royalty statement. Royalty statements include retail store and direct-to-consumer sales -- such as mail-order catalogs -- minus returns.

Each country that collects data on album sales has its own platinum album criteria.

Platinum Certification Accuracy

“Hype” is a significant contributor to music sales, and adding a platinum certification to marketing and public relations materials can help a record label sell even more albums. In the late 1970s, labels latched onto platinum certifications based on mail orders, even when more than 50 percent of albums were returned. For greater accuracy, RIAA introduced the 30-day rule, which requires albums to be on sale for at least 30 days before the record label can seek certification.

The fact that the association counts each disc in a multi-disc set also creates discrepancies -- and questionable platinum status -- among entities that count album sales, such as Nielsen SoundScan. Record labels seize the opportunity to build frenzy around higher sales, whether or not they’re accurate, as Sony did in 1995 with Michael Jackson’s multi-disc album HIStory. The Lion King soundtrack also faced similar scrutiny for hype based on a debatable platinum status.

Crunching the Numbers

No matter which way RIAA gathers its data, it awards platinum status to English-language albums selling 1 million copies and albums selling 2 million copies or more receive multi-platinum status. RIAA also collects data on Spanish-language albums and awards platinum status to those selling 60,000 copies or more. Spanish-language albums need only sell 120,000 copies to receive multi-platinum status.

RIAA began including digital downloads and streaming sound to determine platinum status in 2013. The association also counts video streams in the data it gathers to determine platinum status. In the digital age, 100 free streams counts as one download sale toward certification.

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