When people talk about commercial success in popular music, they’re often talking about one of three concepts. There’s the reach of a work of music—the number of listeners it gets. There’s perception, or bragging rights. And there’s the money made—arguably the most important metric, almost entirely obscured from public view.
The announcement that the Recording Industry of America will now count on-demand streaming figures when doling out Gold and Platinum certifications for albums means such certifications will better reflect the first aforementioned category: actual listenership. Over the past few years, more and more people have stopped paying to download or physically own albums and started instead consuming music on platforms like Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music (Pandora, too, but because you don’t get to pick individual songs its data still won’t factor into RIAA certifications). The RIAA’s rule change means those people can push an album to Gold or Platinum status, and that’s a good thing if certification is meant to capture real marketplace interest in a musical work.
But the rule switch-up also makes understanding what exactly Gold or Platinum status means more difficult than ever before. Until now, Gold indicated at least 500,000 copies sold in stores or through platforms like iTunes, while Platinum indicated a million. Now, those numbers are the sum of sales and the equivalent of sales. The formula for equivalency: “1,500 on-demand audio and/or video song streams = 10 track sales = 1 album sale.” The question of whether that’s a “fair” calculation is inherently unanswerable. What’s clear is that certifications will go from being a cut-and-dry benchmark to an approximation.