In 1989, Jim Greenwood --the founder and former CEO of Licorice Pizza, a chain of record stores in the Los Angeles area -- encountered an RIAA award certifying that The Beatles' single "Paperback Writer" had sold 1,000,000 copies.
"We got a bunch of awards over the years, but being in the business, didn't think much about them," Greenwood says. "They were just so common." But this award, presented to the Fab Four's American label, Capitol Records, piqued his interest. "I thought I was holding in my hands a piece of history," he remembers. "I felt the connection." He bought it, and in the years since has amassed one of the largest collections of plaques in the U.S., with more than 250 listed publicly on his website.
Since 1958, the Recording Industry Association of America has commemorated sales thresholds for singles and albums. "People that struggle their lives to make it, this means something to them," Deb Lotz, whose company Jewel Box Platinum is licensed by the RIAA to produce gold and platinum awards, tells Billboard. "It is special. Miranda Lambert's mom called here: 'I just love what you made for my daughter.' So many artists have come to tears when they get them. For Kelsea Ballerini, the entire record company gathered in the parking lot: the owner of the label with tears in his eyes, I'm crying, Kelsea's crying, everybody's crying in the parking lot congratulating her on her first gold record."
When the RIAA first instituted the award program, a gold record -- indicating 500,000 units sold -- was the only one given. The first gold 45 was given to Perry Como for "Catch A Falling Star" in 1958. Platinum awards (for sales of 1,000,000 units) were instituted in 1976, and Johnnie Taylor earned the first for "Disco Lady." Multi-platinum plaques came into existence in 1984, followed by diamond (10,000,000) in 1999. In the age of streaming services, clicks also count: 1500 streams or video views from an album are tallied as a sale.
The look of the plaques has evolved, too. Before 1964, the record was mounted on a plaque of walnut wood; from 1964-75, a white matte served as the background; from 1975-81, the matte became black (awards from this period are known as "floaters"); after 1981, changes were made to the presentation plate which indicates who the award is for; and starting in 1985, the plate comes with an official RIAA hologram -- which itself has changed over the years -- attached.
Though awards are commissioned by the artists or labels receiving them, only a small group of companies are certified by the RIAA to produce them. Originally all awards were made by New York Frame & Picture Co. Currently, Jewel Box Platinum in Marina Del Ray, Ca. manufactures awards, along with Dejay Gold/Products in Seattle, Wa., Milestone Awards in Burbank, Ca., and Metro Pro LLC in Pine Brook, NJ.
Lotz was keen to get into the business, calling the RIAA at least once a month for two years before the organization agreed to license her. She’s now been in the profession for 24 years. "Stylistically, each company's going to have their own look," she explains. "I like the iconic platinum record: you walk in a room, you know what it is."
But bands with money to burn may leave the simple world of plaques behind, requesting the creation of lavish structures to house one or more platinum records. "I can do outrageous stuff too," Lotz says, acknowledging that she has "a reputation for the bling."
"I've done stuff for Cash Money that's six feet tall with thousands of crystals hand-laid," she continues. "We did one for Florida Georgia Line -- the design we came up with was 40 inches long, 10 inches deep, it had a real steering wheel in it, and an odometer that moved with the increased sales for 'Cruise.' But the majority of it is fairly simple: people want to spend a few hundred dollars. $200 to $500 is the norm."
According to Lotz, a record label will order roughly 20 copies of a gold or platinum award on average -- though when Lil Wayne was enjoying peak commercial success, he might ask for 750 plaques. Taylor Swift is also likely to put in a larger-than-normal order. Generally the size of award orders fluctuates with the fortunes of the particular artist, and the record business writ large, so Greenwood's collecting forays double as archeological reconstructions of the ebbs and flows of the music industry. He has come into contact with hardly any walnut plaques; he estimates that roughly 20 white mattes were manufactured per award. In the late '70s, when floaters were in vogue, that number doubled, and in the '80s, as records started going platinum and multi-platinum, hundreds of awards -- now holograms -- were manufactured, with awards going not just to those who worked on the record but to retailers and DJs who had supported its sales.
Though album sales are down, Lotz stays busy. "There's less volume and lesser budgets, but there's still a ton of business," she says. "They're certifying gold and platinum all day long on singles."
Lotz keeps her distance from the plaque resale market: "Because I'm a big goodie two shoes dork, for the life of me, I would never considering re-selling anything." But Greenwood and his peers are often rescuing plaques from a grim demise at the bottom of a dumpster. "An ex president of MCA didn't know what to do with his awards, so he threw them away!" Greenwood says. "When you're in the business, they don't have the value that a collector would have of them. Where I get my awards, somebody in the business who has got them has moved, has lost interest, doesn't have any more room on the walls. Then people call you and you can have a talk with them about the music, the times."
A plaque’s value depends on a number of factors. "There's no price guide," Greenwood points out. Date of presentation matters -- a first presentation for the Beatles' "Paperback Writer" would be a white matte, and more valuable than a floater commemorating the same single. Condition is also important: how much of the award's original material remains intact?
Prices are also significantly driven by fan interest: most awards, Greenwood believes, are purchased by fans who want a piece of their favorite group's history. "Foo Fighters, Mariah Carey, or Staind have a more popular following," Greenwood explains. "There's a curve shift where there are more people collecting those, so the Foo Fighters get more valuable."
But for Greenwood and other hardcore collectors, the primary motivations for purchasing a plaque are more historical than anything else: while the awards represent a celebration of market success, they can also offer a rare glimpse of the crucial behind-the-scenes players in the music industry. Many of the awards in his collection were not presented to the artists, but to "people who built the modern music business, from label presidents to people who worked at the distribution centers."
"Great to have a Dylan white matte -- I have one presented to Bob Dylan for Nashville Skyline," he explains, referring to the the singer's 1969 album, which found him affecting a nasal country croon. "I [also] have one presented to Albert Grossman [Dylan's manager] for Nashville Skyline," Greenwood adds. "Without Albert Grossman, would Bob Dylan have been Bob Dylan?"
"If it wasn't for the the press people, the sales people, the marketing people, those artists wouldn't have become the artists they were," Greenwood continues. "There is no other collectible that I'm aware of that lists the names of these incredible people." Greenwood and his fellow collectors end up as archivists of the music industry, preserving both the hard work of someone like Lotz and the industry contributions of figures like Grossman, one plaque at a time.