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Sold, Shipped, What's the Diff? : About 2 million albums, in the case of 'The Lion King,' pointing up the disparity between industry's sales tally and SoundScan's.

January 15, 1995|Chuck\f7 Philips

The Recording Industry Assn. of America and SoundScan agree that the biggest-selling album of 1994 was "The Lion King."

But that's where the agreement ends.

The Washington-based RIAA--a trade association that represents the nation's record conglomerates--declared in a year-end media blitz that the Disney soundtrack album sold a staggering 7 million copies since its spring release.

SoundScan--the New York firm whose computerized monitoring system revolutionized the way the record business tallies sales--puts the figure at only 4.9 million.

And that 2.1 million sales isn't the only discrepancy in the two agencies' 1994 findings.

* Ace of Base's "The Sign" has sold 7 million copies since it was released in November, 1993, the RIAA maintains. SoundScan reports 5.2 million.

* Counting Crows' "August & Everything After" has sold more than 5 million copies since September, 1993, the RIAA tells us. SoundScan's estimate: 4.2 million.

* Gloria Estefan's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me" has topped the 1 million sales mark in the last two months by the RIAA count. SoundScan puts sales at around 765,000.

So where did all the extra albums go?

Most of them are still sitting on retail shelves or in warehouses across the country.

According to the RIAA, a record is "sold" once it has been in retailers' hands for 60 days--even though retailers can eventually return unsold product for cash or credit. In some cases over the years, the number of "returns" on an album has reportedly been in the hundreds of thousands.

Tom Silverman, chairman of New York-based Tommy Boy Records, is one of a growing number of executives who thinks the RIAA's approach is in need of a reality check.

"Certification ought to be based on how many records are sold--not how many are shipped," says Silverman, whose label roster includes Coolio and Naughty by Nature. "I know that some companies still want to hide behind this smoke screen of bull, but most of us want reality-based data--not just a bunch of hype."

*

SO WHAT GIVES?: Don't be surprised if you see the RIAA's 7-million sales figure for "The Lion King" touted everywhere from Disney press releases to consumer ads to award shows.

After all, the industry's celebrated gold and platinum album award process has long been based on RIAA sales: a gold record for every 500,000 units shipped and a platinum record for every million.

In the past, there was no way to challenge the RIAA figures, because no other independent accounting system existed.

Since 1991, however, the music business has based its sales charts on data provided by SoundScan, whose computerized system registers a sale every time an album is passed through the bar code scanner at a check-out stand. SoundScan data is now accepted as the industry standard by the very companies who make up the RIAA.

So why doesn't the RIAA simply join the rest of the industry in adopting SoundScan as its data source?

Hilary Rosen, president and chief operating officer of the recording association, defended the continued use of album shipments versus SoundScan sales as a barometer.

"We think the certification process represents an accurate sales picture and we're comfortable with the numbers we release," says Rosen. "Gold and platinum is a marketing tool. We see it as a promotional opportunity to get an artists' achievements more known to the public in a way that they can better understand."

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