Toppling ‘The Wall’: The Farce Of Double-Counting In The RIAA’s All-Time Platinum List

By: Chris Molanphy / September 17, 2008

Reading the New York Times obituary of Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright yesterday, I came upon a statistic that the newspaper ran unquestioningly that ticked me off, as it always does when I see similar statements in print:

Pink Floyd’s 1979 album, “The Wall,” eventually sold 23 million copies in the United States.



No, it didn’t, I grumbled to myself. It’s a double-album—by RIAA math, that means it sold about 11.5 million. SNARL!

There are many things wrong with the Recording Industry Association of America’s system for certifying albums gold, platinum, multiplatinum, and (now) diamond. There’s the counting of records shipped, not sold; I’ve seen discs certified platinum that have actually SoundScanned fewer than 700,000 copies. On the other side of the ledger, there are discs that are under-certified because of the RIAA’s outmoded system requiring labels to request certification—short-changing dozens of classic Motown artists, for example.

But nothing in the RIAA metals methodology sticks in my craw more than double-counting. It’s the biggest scam in record-industry self-tallying, and the main reason it’s infuriating is the very example cited above: journalists and music fans the world over use the RIAA’s certs as their yardstick for all-time album sales. It’s basically a total distortion of rock history.


When you buy one copy of a double album, you give that album two sales toward its RIAA total. Buy a five-disc box set, and your sale is multiplied by five. So while, say, Houses of the Holy had to sell one million copies in 1973 to go platinum, the four-disc Led Zeppelin box set had to sell just 250,000 in 1990 to get the same certification.

Never mind the most basic illogic of this system: the length of a disc has changed in the conversion from vinyl to CD, for one thing; and you can’t buy just one disc of a set, so why should each disc be counted as if it’s an individual sale? Even the industry’s seemingly more reasonable rationale—that a more expensive set deserves a higher certification—doesn’t hold up, because the multiple-counting happens regardless of what you actually paid. For example, OutKast’s 2003 smash Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, priced by BMG and most retailers as a single-disc item, gets double-counted by the RIAA even though many people paid under $12 for both discs.

Garth Brooks famously milked the double-counting system a decade ago by putting out numerous low-priced multidisc releases—a $10 live set, boxes of his old albums remastered—in his (failed) quest to pad his career total and take first place on the all-time list of most-certified acts from the Beatles. (Who, to be fair, have also benefited mightily from double-counting—we’ll get to the White Album in a minute.)

In my writings over the years, when I’m covering something about an all-time best-selling album, I use my own revisionist version of the RIAA’s Top Sellers List to rank albums. (No editor has corrected me yet.) But I shouldn’t be alone on this. Let’s share the revisionism, shall we?

To help set a new standard for all music journalists—we at Idolator are nothing if not public-interest-minded—here’s the corrupt RIAA list (26 places, due to a tie), and below, what a proper Top 25 24 list would look like. Numbers on the left are platinum level. As you see, once you get past the eternal Top Three, there’s a lot of shifting around.


THE RIAA-APPROVED, CORRUPT ALL-TIME LIST
29 Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975, The Eagles
27 Thriller, Michael Jackson
23 Led Zeppelin IV, Led Zeppelin
23 The Wall, Pink Floyd
22 Back in Black, AC/DC
21 Double Live, Garth Brooks
21 Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II, Billy Joel
20 Come on Over, Shania Twain
19 The Beatles (White Album)
19 Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
17 Boston
17 The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston (Soundtrack)
17 No Fences, Garth Brooks
16 Cracked Rear View, Hootie & the Blowfish
16 Greatest Hits, Elton John
16 Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
16 Hotel California, The Eagles
16 1967–1970, The Beatles
16 Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin
15 1962–1966, The Beatles
15 Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen
15 Appetite for Destruction, Guns ‘N Roses
15 Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
15 Saturday Night Fever, The Bee Gees (Soundtrack)
15 Greatest Hits, Journey
15 Supernatural, Santana



THE REVISIONIST, SENSIBLE ALL-TIME LIST
29 Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975, The Eagles
27 Thriller, Michael Jackson
23 Led Zeppelin IV, Led Zeppelin
22 Back in Black, AC/DC
20 Come on Over, Shania Twain
19 Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
17 Boston
17 The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston (Soundtrack)
17 No Fences, Garth Brooks
16 Cracked Rear View, Hootie & the Blowfish
16 Greatest Hits, Elton John
16 Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
16 Hotel California, The Eagles
16 Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin
15 Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen
15 Appetite for Destruction, Guns ‘N Roses
15 Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
15 Greatest Hits, Journey
15 Supernatural, Santana
14 Ropin’ the Wind, Garth Brooks
14 …Baby One More Time, Britney Spears
14 Greatest Hits, Simon & Garfunkel
14 Backstreet Boys
14 Metallica
14 Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf


Who loses in my system? Billy Joel, obviously—and double albums in general. Not a single double-disc would make my “real” Top 25, and only one would make a Top 50: The Wall, at 11.5 million copies, would rank 43rd in my system.

The Beatles are also losers—as a Fabs fan, I do find it a little depressing that all three of their titles drop out of the Top 25. But that is counteracted by my annoyance every time I read a lazy journalist claim that the White Album is “the Beatles’ all time best-selling album.” Much as I love that 9.5 million–selling, 19-times-platinum record, that’s a total perversion of history—any Beatles fan with half a brain knows it’s the 12 million–selling Abbey Road (which would rank 30th in my system in a 13-way tie).

On the plus side, the bottom rungs of my Top 25 round out the genres on the list to include more straight pop (Britney and Backstreet) alongside all the Boomer rock.

Of course, a real, true-to-life list would use SoundScan totals instead of platinum tallies to rank the top U.S. sellers. (At the very least, it would eliminate all those multiway ties between albums at the same certification level.) But that’s not going to happen, thanks to SoundScan being less than two decades old and the total lack of actual sales data for albums before the 1990s. And it would mean negating a system that’s more than four decades old. I don’t see anyone sending back their framed platinum records, no matter what change of heart the RIAA might have.

Nonetheless, I hereby implore fellow music writers to use this list from here on. Not just because it conforms with, y’know, reality, but because it punishes the double album, one of rock’s worst inventions. Let’s face it—virtually all of them could stand to be cut down, anyway.