Why record sales numbers don't add up

By Chris Willman
Updated April 18, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

The number cruncher formerly known as Prince was honored at a star-studded Manhattan bash in February celebrating the ”double platinum” triumph of his latest album, Emancipation, with trade ads trumpeting the feat soon following. But was the claim 2 good 2 B true? Platinum awards are given out by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to million-sellers, but another industry bean counter, SoundScan, showed Emancipation having sold just 460,000 copies by early April — quite a long way from 2 million, though not all that bad for a higher-priced triple-CD set.

Triple, then, is very much the key word in characterizing this king-size discrepancy. A little-publicized procedural quirk of the RIAA has double albums being tabulated as two separate units when it comes to gold and platinum awards, as long as the combined running time of the two discs is at least 120 minutes. And as a three-CD set clocking in at exactly 180 minutes, Emancipation had to ship only a beastly 666,666 copies to be certified as a 2-million-seller by the RIAA’s book. ”It’s up to the RIAA — they make the rules, not us,” says a spokeswoman for EMI, which distributes the former Prince’s label, passing the buck.

And what label wouldn’t take advantage of inflated-sounding certs? ”I don’t hear very many normal humans quoting SoundScan, frankly,” says a publicity VP at another label. In 1991, SoundScan seemingly revolutionized the industry with weekly tallies of actual retail sales, as opposed to the less exact RIAA figures, which simply confirm labels’ accounts of the numbers of albums shipped to retailers and clubs, and through mail order. But ”for the average person,” says the VP, ”gold and platinum are still much more exciting.”

Shouldn’t it have been excitement enough that the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness sold 3.9 million copies domestically, according to SoundScan? Yes, but Virgin Records (the group’s label) surely got an infinitely bigger charge out of announcing that the alt-rockers’ double CD had been RIAA-certified eight times platinum — which, among laymen (and not a few gullible journalists), tends to get interpreted as 8 million copies sold. Similarly, Michael Jackson’s HIStory is six times platinum, though SoundScan has the double CD down for 2.2 million copies. Blues Traveler went platinum with their Live From the Fall, despite a SoundScan tally of just 229,000. (Doubled numbers aside, labels ascribe remaining discrepancies to sales through non-SoundScan-reporting indie stores and record clubs, although SoundScan does estimate those in their tallies.)

Theoretically, then, it’d be possible to produce a boxed set containing a half million CDs, ship one to Mom and one to Pop, and get an instant platinum album for your troubles. But even the hyper-prolific ex-Prince may not have that much music in him.