Nostalgia for Gold Records as Kanye Goes ‘Platinum’ from Streaming

When Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs wooed John Sculley away from Pepsi in 1983 to become CEO of Apple, even Jobs couldn’t have dreamed of just how much the digital revolution he helped create would change the world.

Thanks to Jobs and other pioneers, the music industry as it existed in the 1980s was obliterated less than 20 years later. Once consumers were empowered to buy only the songs they wanted online, even simple terms like “album” were turned on their ear — for younger folks reading this, an album was once a physical object, a discrete mini-collection of music. Today an album is an intangible group of digitized songs with nothing more cohesive than a release date.

But it runs deeper than that. In the ’80s, an album was also — let’s be frank — a lucrative way to release one or two hit songs packaged with six or seven throwaway tracks most consumers wouldn’t have paid for if they’d had the choice.

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“New technologies have for centuries brought changes to culture rooted in the convenience they provide,” publicist Gary Schneeberger, founder and president of marketing firm ROAR, in the Los Angeles area, told LifeZette. “We’ve gone, in my lifetime, from having to thread reel-to-reel tape machines to saying, ‘Hey Siri, play The Beatles.'”

But technology hasn’t just changed the way we listen to music — it’s also changed the way we now measure the success of musicians. And the industry is struggling to keep up.

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In 1958, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) defined a gold record as one that generated a million dollars or more in sales. Starting in 1975, a gold record also had to have sold at least 500,000 albums; a platinum album certification requires a million or more albums sold. And the RIAA still uses those definitions today — but it’s growing increasingly difficult to measure, now that streaming accounts for more than 50 percent of sales, surpassing CDs, digital downloads, and all other media combined.

“We’re long past the days when Casey Kasem and the Billboard Hot 100 were the arbiter of success in the music industry,” said Schneeberger, who has worked with diverse projects including TV, movie, book and music promotion.

Case in point: The RIAA recently declared Kanye West’s 2016 album “The Life of Pablo” to have gone platinum — the first-ever platinum certification achieved almost exclusively by paid streaming from sites such Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.

In 1983 that would have meant he'd sold a million or more albums. Today, it's a little more complicated, to put it mildly: The RIAA's certification was based on 1.5 billion U.S. streams. But of which songs — all the songs divvied up equally, the way it would have been with album sales? What about non-paying subscribers? How do we calculate post-release track-list changes or leaked and pirated tracks, both of which happened with West's album? How do we calculate album sales if customers only downloaded their favorite tracks?

As Schneeberger noted, measuring success is far messier than even that cursory glance.

"It's not just iTunes or Spotify or Pandora that influence the popularity of music," said Schneeberger. "How many 'YouTube sensations' have we seen wind up with recording contracts after posting videos of themselves singing solo with an acoustic guitar recorded on a phone?"

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Better yet: What about artists such as Chance the Rapper, who achieve sales with no recording contract at all?

"Those are the musical mementos technology is taking away from today's generation."

The RIAA's certification audit requirements address some of these issues. Ten on-demand streams of any album tracks count as one album sale, for instance; only U.S. domestic or U.S. military posting sales are tallied. But other questions remain: There seems to be no definition for what constitutes a "legitimate digital service provider"; little or no provision is described for artists who work independently from established record companies, other than the requirement that certification requests include sales figures as defined. Requests for information from RIAA have remained unanswered.

The shift to streaming has left an unfilled gap in our enjoyment of music, suggested Schneeberger. "How else to explain the resurgence of vinyl?" he said. "People long for being able to touch the music that touches them, to actually see it playing as well as hear it. There's a little melancholy that drives that."

He continued, "I was at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood during the recording of the music in the movie 'Hillsong — Let Hope Rise,' and it was fascinating to see the gold records from Sinatra, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Willis hanging on the walls. Those are the musical mementos technology is taking away from today's generation."

Last Modified: April 24, 2017, 1:46 pm

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