The RIAA Just Acknowledged Streaming and the Implications Are Weird

As of today, no money needs to change hands for an album to go Platinum, if enough people play songs from it on YouTube.

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The Recording Industry Association of America declared today, in a press release, that all “on-demand video and audio” streams will now count toward an album’s Gold, Platinum, or Diamond status. This means that streams from Spotify, TIDAL, Apple Music, and — yes — even YouTube will count toward a tally that used to be comprised of only sales figures.

RIAA Chairman and CEO Cary Sherman stated that changing the qualification for their Album Award was the organization’s attempt to “recognize benchmarks of success in an evolving digital marketplace.” Now, according to the new system, 1,500 album streams will be equal to 10 track sales or 1 album sale.

While it does seem that the new rule will better reflect the ever-intangible “popularity” of certain albums and artists, it does seem odd that, effectively, one doesn’t need to pay for anything except a monthly subscription — or not even that, if you put up with ads — to help make an album Platinum (what one would have once called, synonymously, a “Platinum seller”).

The Billboard charts have been counting streaming data toward the album charts for almost a year-and-a-half, which has left the Album Award to function apart as a separate, unbiased metric of commercial success. The dichotomous system seemed to provide a welcome kind of balance, though one could extrapolate less and less from a sociological perspective from the raw sales data than the ever-more-detailed Billboard charts. In the view of the RIAA, however, the Album Award is meant as a more general commendation of “success in the music marketplace,” and the exact definition of this “marketplace” is loosening drastically every year, or week.

The new system begins officially from today (February 1) on, but as an inaugural gesture, the RIAA has unveiled a list of 17 albums that did extremely well on streaming that will now be officially classified as Gold or Platinum. Here is the full list from the press release:

Alt-J An Awesome Wave (Atlantic Records) Gold, Big Sean Dark Sky Paradise (Def Jam Recordings) Platinum, Brett Eldredge Bring You Back (Atlantic Nashville) Gold, Coldplay Ghost Stories (Atlantic/Parlophone) Platinum, Elle King Love Stuff (RCA) Gold, Fifth Harmony Reflection (Epic) Gold, Halsey Badlands (Astralwerks) Gold, Hozier Hozier (Columbia) Platinum, Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg Entertainment/Interscope) Platinum, Michael Jackson Thriller (Epic/Legacy) 32X Multi-Platinum, Miranda Lambert Platinum (RCA Nashville) Platinum, Romeo Santos Fórmula Vol. 2 (Sony Latin) 11X Diamante/RIAA Latin G&P Program, Sam Hunt Montevallo (MCA Nashville) 2X Multi-Platinum, Shawn Mendes Handwritten (Island Records) Platinum, The Weeknd Beauty Behind the Madness (XO/Republic Records) 2X Multi-Platinum, Vance Joy Dream Your life Away (Atlantic Records) Gold, and Wale Ambition (Atlantic Urban) Gold.

Among the achievements, even more times Platinum for Thriller and an actual Platinum certification for Miranda Lambert’s album called Platinum.

Even if the new Gold, Platinum, and Diamond charts reflect your own music taste a bit more, no longer will the rare, record-breaking commercial achievements of artists like Adele — who sold 15 million copies of her November album 25 in just one month — be easy to isolate.

The RIAA announcement, in some sense, leaves an odd aftertaste: What is music worth to anyone these days? Record labels will peacefully suffer over time from behind a veneer of apparent prosperity, and no one except those in the know will have to watch.

Nonetheless, congrats to Kendrick, the Weeknd, and Wale (LOL).