“A questionable accounting system in the Australian music industry has resulted in performers being awarded gold and platinum albums and singles before they have sold the required number of CDs to the public,” reported the Sunday Telegraph’s entertainment writer, Peter Holmes, on Sunday 14 March. Apparently, record labels tabulate sales by the amount of stock that leaves the warehouse, rather than what is bought over the counter and taken home by punters. This isn't like Beatles singles, at the height of Beatlemania, being awarded gold status prior to release because sufficient punters had ordered copies. Rather, since new releases are often sold into music shops on a sale-or-return basis (ie, they can be sent back if they don’t sell) it could well be the case that artists are awarded gold (for sales of 35,000 copies) or platinum (for sale of 70,000 copies) prior to selling that amount - or without ever having sold that amount.
One of the examples Holmes gives us if of the independent act the John Butler Trio, an act, Holmes tells us, that had just released their third album, Sunrise Over Sea. 50,000 copies were ordered by retailers across the nation. As Sebastian Chase (who works for MGM - the independent distributor handling the album) explains, on the first day of release, only about 25,000 copies would sell. Yet the album is already declared gold before it has actually gone sale. Except, of course, now that the album's been mentioned in a national paper, perhaps it will have earnt its gold status after all.
This reminds me of one of my favourite tales of rock ’n’ roll excess, about the Casablanca label in the 70s, as documented in Frederic Dannen's excellent expose on the dodgy practices of the music industry, Hitmen. Casablanca was an independent label set up by Neil Bogart, and its claim to fame was milking the disco trend and launching the recording career of Kiss. However, despite some hype-driven success which led to the multinational music corporation PolyGram buying into it, and losing out bigtime when Casablanca ran itself into the ground through incredible excess. Casablanca's first release was a compilation of comedy snippets from Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Despite the presence of Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, the Smothers Brothers and Groucho Marx, the album was quite ordinary. Yet Bogart talked it up so big that distributors shipped massive quantities. And then the album stiffed, and all the copies were sent back. Forever more, Casablanca was known as the label that “shipped gold and returned platinum”.
Part of the reason why labels are keen to attribute sales before they have actually been made is because one way to get sales is to have them. Just as busy-looking shops and restaurants stay busy, albums that look as though they are selling a lot have a much better chance of continuing to sell a lot. Part of the reason is because when a song charts, it receives more airplay – even though more airplay is one of the reasons why a record charts. Thus, make it look like a lot of people are buying it, and, quite often, a lot of people end up buying it.
This doesn’t always work: there is another Casablanca story, about Bogart appearing on a late-night chat show with Cher, who was recording for the label at the time, in order to present her with a gold record for her single ‘Take Me Home’. In the United States, an album has to sell 500,000 copies to attain gold status; a single has to sell a million copies! ‘Take Me Home’ had sold maybe 700,000 copies. The following day, PolyGram received a frantic call from Bogart’s lackeys, insisting that they press and ship another 300,000 copies of the single, so as not to make Bogart a liar. As there had been no new orders for the additional 300,000 copies, PolyGram had to wear a hefty loss.
In the case of Slim Dusty’s postumous Columbia Lane achieving gold status after a week of release, we can breath easy. It debuted at number 5 in the charts at the same time, and as the charts are compiled from actual over-the-counter sales, there probably are 35,000 Aussie households giving Slim a spin!