By Austin Weimer
Current up-and-coming musicians everywhere just received a large boost to their shot at making it big. On February 1, the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) broadened their certification criteria to include streaming.
Certification from the RIAA is the ultimate measure of success in the music industry. In 1958, the association started issuing their own certifications, along with protecting copyrights and distributing the majority of recorded music in the United States. As industry leaders, they set the criteria for awards based on distribution, with alterations to accommodate new mediums. This recent alteration to criteria produced some staggering figures tied to streaming, which clearly shows where the attention and demand for consumer music lies.
Gold and platinum certification standards remain in place, with an additional equation to factor in streaming. Selling 500,000 copies of an album qualifies the Gold Award, with Platinum at one million respectively. The RIAA’s undisclosed research led them to the following equation: one album sale equals ten track sales, which is equal to 1,500 plays through a streaming service.
The recent changes, while similar to the changes made in 2013, apply to a different category within the RIAA awards. In 2013, streaming was added to the criteria for the RIAA’s award for digital singles. The most recent change now counts streaming in the album certification category. Seventeen albums, including Coldplay’s Ghost Stories and Hozier’s self-titled album, received awards retroactively. Michael Jackson’s Thriller topped all other totals combined, at thirty-two-times multi-platinum—amounting to 64 million sales with streams.
As a focus point for their change, the RIAA stated their intention was to award based on plays rather than monetary figures of total revenue made. While the intentions behind the criteria changes are constructive and representative of popular music, questions arise concerning the methodology. Going forward, the RIAA has an entirely new set of problems to encounter.
When it comes to streaming as a whole, many of the giants in the industry are clear—YouTube, Spotify, and SoundCloud. What criteria determines whether the RIAA will expend the accounting effort for a lesser-known streaming website? As established as some streaming services are, other competitors could catch up. The RIAA now needs to evaluate each website as a distinct medium within itself, just as they would differentiate between vinyl and CD sales to reach a minimum before entry. Additionally, the artists and albums an individual streaming website offers or even promotes could intentionally inflate numbers or leave out artists without a contractual agreement. Small-time artists may be limited to a handful of these streaming websites, while their competition is allowed free reign if there is a projected profit for the website. If this were the case, there would not be a true free market for all music to compete with equal representation. What stops a website with an agenda from setting up a massive network of computers with songs on loop to generate plays?
New sites with potential include Mixcrate, Rdio, and Kanye West’s TIDAL. In theory, their success will only add to the greater success and recognition of artists utilizing streaming to deliver their work. Wherever the shift in the consumer market for music lies, the RIAA will have to follow closely and objectively.