The real meaning of gold and platinum records -- We investigate the murky definition of the music industry's measure of financial success

A Grammy award confers respectability. An MTV music-video statuette conveys hipness. An American Music Award indicates widespread fan appeal. But people in the music business — with the emphasis on business — covet gold and platinum records. Why? Because a gold, or platinum — or, better still, multiplatinum — record means financial success. These awards, given by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), represent huge sales — 500,000 albums for gold, 1 million for platinum, 2 million or more for multiplatinum. (Singles have lower benchmarks; you’ve gone platinum if you sell just 500,000.)

But some people in the music industry believe these awards can have a tinny ring. Michael Ellis, chart director for Billboard, argues that the RIAA bases its awards on the number of copies a record company sends to stores, without subtracting the sometimes large numbers of unsold units stores later return. Ellis says a recent gold award to Debbie Gibson’s album Anything Is Possible, which never charted higher than No. 41, is questionable. ”It can’t sell a half-million copies in a month and not reach the top 20,” Ellis contends. (Gibson’s previous albums went multiplatinum.) But Angela Corio, gold-platinum awards program coordinator for the RIAA, insists, ”The awards are based on retail sales to consumers.” Gibson’s label, Atlantic Records, has no comment.

Music executives hope that gold and platinum certifications will create a bandwagon effect, making sales grow ever larger. The plaques function as a pat on the back for those who make the recording and sell it, or as a thank-you to family, friends, and others who have been helpful. Lita Ford (posing with her prize, above) gave a plaque to a loyal voice coach; rappers Run-D.M.C. gave one to a travel agency that provided long hours of service. In his Manhattan office, Dr. Scott Kessler, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, displays plaques from such appreciative patients as Bon Jovi, Anita Baker, and Sting. ”It’s a gift of thanks,” Kessler says.

The gold and platinum plaques, which cost about $100, are neither gold nor platinum, but colored plastic. And they’re almost never made from actual copies of the best-selling products they honor. Usually the records, cassettes, and CDs on the plaques don’t even contain music. Anyone who tries to play them will hear only a hiss.