Music Sales Are Music PR

Platinum and Gold certifications now reflect streaming figures, but it’s still very hard to quantify a musician's commercial success.

Mariah Carey receives an RIAA award in 2003. (Rick Wilking / Reuters)

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.

Should the public mind? Probably not. An album sells what it sells regardless of certification; certificates are only handed out after a record company or musician puts in an application for one. For artists, the incentive to do so is the same incentive to pursue any kind of award: recognition for hard work. For everyone else, Gold and Platinum plaques have always been about that second idea of musical success that I mentioned earlier: appearances. Certificates allow musicians and their record companies to market themselves as successful. They give fans ammo in their online wars against rival fandoms. The RIAA’s own press release makes certifications sound like promotional gimmicks:

Gold & Platinum recognition is often among the most celebrated news in an artist’s social media feed.  The RIAA utilizes a myriad of social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flipagram, and a YouTube page – to market and publicize artist award achievements.  The RIAA also recently unveiled a new and Gold & Platinum database where fans can more easily search and share the award recognition.

That third version of commercial success, how much money a song or album has made, remains hard to talk about. Remember, RIAA awards are a marker of thresholds—an album can sell anywhere between 1,000,000 and 1,999,999 copies and still be Platinum. The other widely used commercial metric in music, Nielsen Soundscan, does keep precise sales and streaming totals, but much of that is only available to subscribers. The Billboard charts simply use those totals to render success in the relative terms of a ranking. And even when the public does know the full consumption figures for a work of music, that’s far from a full portrait of financial success.

It’s always been the case that the amount an artist makes from an individual sale—as opposed to how much the record company or distributor profits—has been confidential. But today, the picture is even less clear. That’s in part because streaming payouts are famously complicated and mutable. It’s also because in many cases, profitability has been largely decoupled from sales in favor of merchandising, touring, and, of increasing importance, sponsorships.

Take the case of Rihanna’s new album, Anti. On Friday, The New York Times reported that by Nielsen’s count, only 460 copies had been sold. That’s a shockingly low number, but as the reporter Ben Sisario wrote, it’s surely so small only because of quirks of rules and timing. As I wrote the same day, the RIAA certified Anti platinum within 14 hours of it hitting the Internet—apparently because Samsung, with whom Rihanna’s signed a reported $25 million marketing deal, bought up a million album copies that were then gifted to fans who typed in a download code. Nielsen doesn’t count such free promotions in its numbers; the RIAA does, on the theory that they still reflect consumer demand for an album. One measure of counting is certainly better for Rihanna’s publicity machine. Neither tells anyone how much money she’s made.