THE GOLDEN CLICK
What is a “Successful Record” In The Internet Age?
And Why We Should Care.
By Moses Avalon
“Not everything that can be counted, counts.” - Albert Einstein
Is it still the hope of performers and producers to earn a gold record? Aside from the money, there can be no greater satisfaction than knowing you impressed a massive number of people. But these plaques do more than just stroke egos. Awards are the pavilions of every community. Without them we have no standards for success and without that, we would be something less than an industry.
Unfortunately, in the post Radiohead-pay-what-you-want music business, artists will be inspired to sidestep Distributors with very creative sales models that will likely not involve the publishing of statistics. I suspect this has tax advantages, but it deprives everyone from sharing in the achievement. Case in point: Radiohead’s, In Rainbows, does anyone but the band know for sure if it was “successful?”
Gold and platinum records were once given by the record company themselves to their top artists, much the way companies issue “employee of the month” awards. It was a way of honoring an artist who had, in a practical sense, become partners with the label. Elvis Presley receiving his 1956 award for 1,000,000 sales was one of the first examples.
But record companies giving awards to their own artists had no real public credibility. Enter the RIAA in 1958, who, since then, has been issuing plaques for sales benchmarks. But with the movement of many mega-stars to deals outside the sphere of the RIAA, who will arbitrate? Can you imagine a band giving itself an award for “excellence” in sales? It’s laughable.
This may seem irrelevant to the purists and anarchists out there, but if we think a bit past our natural contempt for the self congratulatory, we would see that losing yet another staple of our industry–gold and platinum standards–to the Net world could have greater repercussions than we think; how will the music industry judge its champions? Will a “Gold Click” award have the same meaning or pageantry as the gold-dipped LPs, and who will issue it? The RIAA?
WHAT IS A “SALE” ANYWAY?
Truth be told, the RIAA plaques have not ever been based on actual sales. The trade organization takes liberties with how they define the crucial word. Instead, “sales” were and are based on the amount of units shipped to stores. I have written much on why this is stupid, but it’s relevancy here should be obvious; how will this be adapted to the internet? Digital Distributors of music don’t ship anything. They email a single file of metadata to servers. Why base an award on that? In every case it would merely represent the biggest outlets: Yahoo, Amazon, iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody and E-Music, to name only the most well known.
So, can’t we just track the activity from the 100s of services and see who’s getting the most clicks? With all the promises made by tech companies you’d think creating an integrated data base that everybody just uploads to once a month would be child’s play. Think again. The cost would be staggering and then there is the view that many companies (Walmart to name but one) are not interested in releasing this information. Instead, the most employed sales-tracking system in the record industry is a bar-code scanner, SoundScan, (owned by Nielsen). It does not track many on-line stores and has no way of accounting for millions of “play events” from subscription services.
And what about statistics that are tricky to verify, like P2P file sharing? While it might seem obvious that illegal downloads are not “sales” in the literal interpretation, consider basic fairness: should an artist with 100,000 clicks on MySpace be given more significance than those of a group with 250,000 downloads on Limewire?
Finally, in today’s record selling environment physical sales 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 music is streamed, pipelined and cached via digital distribution systems into millions of restaurants and websites. None of these are “sales,” as traditionally understood, but all of them generate revenue and royalties.
WHAT’S THE MAGIC NUMBER?
The next issue for debate is the “threshold.” The RIAA’s famous certifications are for the US where the thresholds are 500,000 units for gold and 1,000,000 units for platinum. Other countries vary. In Canada, for example, platinum status is only 100,000 units (Must be why Brian Adams has so many awards). The official reason: plateaus are based on population. Fewer people mean fewer sales and so it would not be fair to have a universal threshold based on a hard number.
How will this be applied to the Gold Click? Do we take into consideration the entire population of everyone using the internet? What about the fact that some (richer) parts of the on-line 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?
WHO CAN WE TRUST?
The RIAA? Who trusts them to set an honest threshold when they don’t even recognize a significant portion of the downloads– independent music. To quote one of my readers (who gave me the idea for 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 hard-drive; Big Champagne, offers a chart of much of the P2P activity; even garage hero, CD Baby has a page for the artists that have sold more than a couple of dozen units through their site. So, I asked the always forward thinking RIAA, leader of giants, purveyor of the battlefield, 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. Nero fiddled too.
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 thirteen years old.
PS: Thanks to Jeff for inspiration.