Going Platinum

In October, people panicked that 2014 could be the first year without a platinum album. Could this be the end of platinum albums? What will this do to music? The panic swelled on the Internet. Then Taylor Swift’s 1989 dropped and sold 1.287 million units in one week, and it could go multi-platinum in under a month. Of course the platinum album isn’t going anywhere. And whether or not an album is certified platinum has no effect on whether you will get to listen to your jams.
An album is platinum when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certifies that an album has sold more than 1 million units. This method of calculating album sales is both antiquated and reductive. In an era when music fans receive their music digitally, to count album sales makes no sense. Most people download singles from iTunes, stream music from Spotify, watch videos on YouTube or Vevo, or download it from Beats Music. None of these methods are calculated in the RIAA’s certification.
Whereas Billboard, via Nielsen SoundScan, uses a number of markers to calculate album sales, the RIAA uses shipments and digital album sales. The main problem is that shipment data are reported by record labels on the number of albums shipped to retailers, not the number of units sold. Nielsen SoundScan does some things differently. First, it uses a point-of-sale system to calculate actual sales. Second, SoundScan uses track-equivalent-albums as an attempt to give some credit to the number of digital singles sold in relation to an album (10 singles = 1 album). Third, SoundScan tries to quantify streams through a system called stream-equivalent-album where 2,000 streams counts as an album sales. While these attempts oversimplify music consumption, at the very least they are an attempt to calculate sales in a digital era.
Additionally, there is no requirement for the RIAA to play by its own rules in certification. Samsung purchased one million units of Jay Z’s 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail to give it away free on Samsung devices. While far fewer than 1 million people downloaded the album from Samsung, the RIAA still certified it Platinum – even breaking its own three week certification rule. On the other hand, U2’s Songs of Innocence, which was reportedly experienced by 81 million Apple users, was not certified platinum.
Platinum albums will be certified in the future, but only if the RIAA decides to do so.


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