This chart explains the rise and fall of the music album, 1955-2015

By | March 5, 2017

In my forthcoming Lean Media book, I talk a lot about the digital-driven convulsions of traditional, 20th century media. Some sectors of the media industry have had it worse than others, though, such as newspapers and recorded music. This post will look at one data point from the music industry that illustrates how much things have changed in recent years.

The chart below shows RIAA-certified diamond music albums from 1955 through 2015. You are probably familiar with gold-certified albums (500,000 units sold) and platinum (1 million units sold). The RIAA diamond certification represents 10 million albums sold in the United States. In other words, diamonds are monster hit records like Thriller and Hotel California.

I built the chart using a list of diamond albums that Billboard ranked, which excludes most greatest hits compilations, soundtracks, and live albums unless they contain mostly new material (such as the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack). Here’s what the RIAA diamond distribution looks like:

RIAA diamond albums 1955-2015

So what happened? In the late 50s there was a single diamond album — Elvis Presley’s Elvis’ Christmas Album — but then a long drought until the late 60s. At the time, low-cost singles ruled the U.S. album charts, and young people weren’t as interested in full-length LP (“long play”) records. It wasn’t until the Beatles and other rock bands expanded the idea of conceptual or themed albums that sales began to take off. Young members of the Baby Boomer generation had more money. As they entered the workforce they invested in larger home stereo systems, and bought more albums. “Generation X” (those born from 1965 to 1980) followed a similar pattern.

Diamond albums were released nearly every year from 1967 until the early 2000s, with a big spike in the mid to late 90s. The 90s was an especially profitable era for the music industry, which leveraged music videos, new digital technologies (including compact discs) and point-of-sale data to groom hit-makers and produce a slew of global hits. For each diamond album that was certified, you can assume there were scores of platinum and gold albums that were released in the same year.

And then sales plummeted. From 2005-2010 there were no diamond albums. You can thank Steve Jobs, Internet-connected PCs, and changing consumer tastes for this. Apple’s iPod ecosystem let people buy only the songs they wanted instead of the entire album. Many turned to their PCs to manage their song collections, and to the Internet to discover (and share) new music. Mobile phones and streaming music have only accelerated that trend. In the meantime, CD players have been disconnected, and music videos are now considered second-tier marketing tools. Now, the only recording artists who can hope to get RIAA-certified diamond status are the biggest global superstars. Adele managed this feat in 2011 with 21 and in 2015 with 25.

Below you can see the list of albums as well as the year they were released and the number of platinum certifications (that is, “15” means 15 million albums sold in all). I’ve removed Billboard’s quality ranking for the 88 on the list, but check out how Billboard ranked them as well as the contextual blurbs about each album.

Artist(s) Album Name Year Released Platinum certifications
Elvis Presley Elvis’ Christmas Album 1957 10
The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 1967 11
The Beatles The White Album) 1968 19
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin I 1969 10
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II 1969 12
The Beatles Abbey Road 1969 12
Carole King Tapestry 1971 10
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV 1971 23
Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon 1972 15
Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy 1973 11
Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti 1975 16
Eagles Hotel California 1976 16
Boston Boston 1976 17
Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life 1976 10
Meat Loaf Bat Out of Hell 1977 14
Billy Joel The Stranger 1977 10
Fleetwood Mac Rumours 1977 20
Various Artists Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack 1977 15
Van Halen Van Halen 1978 10
Pink Floyd The Wall 1979 23
AC/DC Back in Black 1980 22
Michael Jackson Thriller 1982 32
Def Leppard Pyromania 1983 10
Lionel Richie Can’t Slow Down 1983 10
ZZ Top Eliminator 1983 10
Van Halen 1984 1984 10
Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA 1984 15
Madonna Like a Virgin 1984 10
Prince Purple Rain 1984 13
Phil Collins No Jacket Required 1985 12
Whitney Houston Whitney Houston 1985 13
Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet 1986 12
Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill 1986 10
Various Artists Dirty Dancing Soundtrack 1987 11
Def Leppard Hysteria 1987 12
George Michael Faith 1987 10
U2 The Joshua Tree 1987 10
Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction 1988 18
Garth Brooks Garth Brooks 1989 10
Hammer Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em 1990 10
Garth Brooks No Fences 1990 17
Garth Brooks Ropin’ the Wind 1991 14
Pearl Jam Ten 1991 13
Metallica The Black Album) 1991 16
Nirvana Nevermind 1991 10
Kenny G Breathless 1992 12
Various Artists The Bodyguard Soundtrack 1992 17
Mariah Carey Music Box 1993 10
Hootie and the Blowfish Cracked Rear View 1994 16
Boyz II Men II 1994 12
Various Artists The Lion King Soundtrack 1994 10
Shania Twain The Woman In Me 1994 12
Green Day Dookie 1994 10
Mariah Carey Daydream 1995 10
Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill 1995 16
Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness 1995 10
TLC CrazySexyCool 1995 11
Matchbox 20 Yourself or Someone Like You 1996 12
Celine Dion Falling Into You 1996 11
No Doubt Tragic Kingdom 1996 10
2Pac All Eyez on Me 1996 10
Garth Brooks Sevens 1997 10
Various Artists Titanic Soundtrack 1997 11
Celine Dion Let’s Talk About Love 1997 10
Backstreet Boys Backstreet Boys 1997 14
Jewel Pieces of You 1997 12
Notorious B.I.G. Life After Death 1997 10
Shania Twain Come On Over 1997 20
*NSYNC ‘N Sync 1998 10
Dixie Chicks Wide Open Spaces 1998 12
Creed Human Clay 1999 11
Santana Supernatural 1999 15
Britney Spears …Baby One More Time 1999 14
Backstreet Boys Millennium 1999 13
Kid Rock Devil Without a Cause 1999 11
Dixie Chicks Fly 1999 10
Britney Spears Oops! I Did It Again 2000 10
*NSYNC No Strings Attached 2000 11
Linkin Park Hybrid Theory 2000 10
Nelly Country Grammar 2000 10
Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP 2000 10
Shania Twain Up! 2002 11
Norah Jones Come Away With Me 2002 10
Eminem The Eminem Show 2002 10
OutKast Speakerboxxx/The Love Below 2003 11
Usher Confessions 2004 10
Adele 21 2011 14
Adele 25 2015 10
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