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Music recording sales certification is a system of certifying that a music recording has shipped or sold a certain number of copies. The threshold quantity varies by type (such as album, single, music video) and by nation or territory (see List of music recording certifications).
Almost all countries follow variations of the RIAA certification categories, which are named after precious materials.
The number of sales or shipments required for these awards depends upon the population of the territory in which the recording is released. Typically, they are awarded only to international releases and are awarded individually for each country in which the album is sold. Different sales levels, some perhaps 10 times lower than others, may exist for different music media (for example: videos versus albums, singles, or downloads).
The original gold record awards were presented to artists by their own record companies to publicize their sales achievements. The first of these was awarded by RCA Victor to Glenn Miller in February 1942, celebrating the sale of 1.2 million copies of "Chattanooga Choo Choo". Another example of a company award is the gold record awarded to Elvis Presley in 1956 for one million units sold of his single "Don't Be Cruel". The first gold record for an LP was awarded by RCA Victor to Harry Belafonte in 1957 for the album Calypso (1956), the first album to sell over 1,000,000 copies in RCA's reckoning.
At the industry level, in 1958 the Recording Industry Association of America introduced its gold record award program for records of any kind, albums or singles, which achieved one million dollars in retail sales. These sales were restricted to U.S.-based record companies and did not include exports to other countries. For albums in 1968, this would mean shifting approximately 250,000 units; for singles the number would be higher due to their lower retail price. The platinum certification was introduced in 1976 for the sale of one million units, album or single, with the gold certification redefined to mean sales of 500,000 units, album or single. No album was certified platinum prior to this year. For instance, the recording by Van Cliburn of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto from 1958 would eventually be awarded a platinum citation, but this would not happen for another two decades after its release. In 1999, the diamond certification was introduced for sales of ten million units.
The first official designation of a "gold record" by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was established for singles in 1958, and the RIAA also trademarked the term "gold record" in the United States. On March 14, 1958, the RIAA certified its first gold record, Perry Como's hit single "Catch a Falling Star". The Oklahoma! soundtrack was certified as the first gold album four months later. In 1976, RIAA introduced the platinum certification, first awarded to Johnnie Taylor's single, "Disco Lady", and to the Eagles album, Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975). As music sales increased with the introduction of compact discs, the RIAA created the Multi-Platinum award in 1984. Diamond awards, honoring those artists whose sales of singles or albums reached 10,000,000 copies, were introduced in 1999.
Like many record industry awards and rankings, the measurement is based on wholesale shipments to all types of retail outlets, and is not based on actual retail sales or financial transactions. As a result, an early award or ranking for a new release reflects only the distributor's market power expectations.
In most countries certifications no longer apply solely to physical media but now also include sales awards recognizing digital downloads (in the U.S. and U.K. since 2004). In June 2006, the RIAA also certified the ringtone downloads of songs. Streaming from on-demand services such as Rhapsody and Spotify has been included in the U.S since 2013 and the U.K. since 2014, and in the U.S. video streaming services like YouTube, VEVO, and Yahoo! Music also began to be counted towards the certification with the formula of 100 streams being equivalent to one download.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) was founded in 1996, and grants the IFPI Platinum Europe Award for album sales over one million within Europe and (as of October 2009) the Middle East. Multi-platinum Europe Awards are presented for sales in subsequent multiples of one million. Eligibility is unaffected by time (from date of release), and is not restricted to European-based artists.
Below are certification thresholds for the United States and United Kingdom. The numbers in the tables are in terms of "units", where a unit represents one sale or one shipment of a given medium. Certification is often awarded cumulatively, and it is possible for a single album to be certified silver, gold, and platinum in turn. An album that becomes platinum twice over, for example, an album which has sold 2,000,000 copies in the United States, is said to be "double-platinum", or sometimes "multi-platinum". Note also that since 2013 in the U.S. and 2014 in the U.K. streaming of songs counts towards certification of singles with 100 streams being the equivalent of 1 unit sold.
The plaques themselves contain various items under the glass. Modern awards often use CDs instead of records. Most gold and platinum records are actually vinyl records which have been vacuum metallized and tinted, while trimmed and plated metal "masters", "mothers", or "stampers" (metal parts used for pressing records out of vinyl) were initially used. Rarely does the groove on the record match the actual recording being awarded. Individual plaque-makers produced their awards according to available materials and techniques employed by their graphic arts departments. The plaques, depending on size and elaborateness of design, cost anywhere between US$135 and $275, most often ordered and purchased by the record label that issued the original recording.