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This past week, Taylor Swift dropped her new album 1989—and so far, it has received positive reviews from fans and critics alike. In fact, according to Billboard, 1989 is on track to sell 1.2 million copies in its opening week, qualifying the album as “platinum” under the standards set by the Recording Industry Association of America (“RIAA”).
The fact that 1989 will most likely go platinum in its very first week of sales is, by all industry accounts, a remarkable feat. The last album to do this was Swift’s Red, which also immediately sold 1.2 million copies back in 2012.
But 2012 was two years ago, and in that time, the way people listen to music has changed a lot. According to Nielsen’s midyear music report, digital sales dipped 13% in the first 6 months of 2014 as album sales dropped 14.3%. Meanwhile, streaming increased 42%. As these figures indicate, instead of buying new music in the store or over iTunes, people are opting to wait until it becomes available through services like Spotify and Pandora.
This phenomenon led some entertainment lawyers to speculate in a recent Forbes article that 1989 could be the very last platinum album ever.
“Since streaming sites and rogue torrent sites make it easy for any teenager to access millions of songs for free, it comes as no surprise that young people, who are the music industry’s core consumer, are not paying for physical or digital singles or albums,” said veteran music lawyer Bernie Resnick. “Without the support of the most important segment of the customer base, it becomes extremely difficult to sell enough units to qualify for gold or platinum sales awards.”
And although streaming has not slowed 1989’s success, it could very well be the exception to the new rule in music business. “I would like to believe that this recent achievement could be a sign of more to come,” said entertainment attorney Lori Landew of Fox Rothschild. “[But] I tend to believe that it is more an aberration that can be attributed to a super strong and loyal fan base.”
The Forbes article concluded that in order for the platinum record to stick around, the RIAA should amend its certification criteria to account for online streaming.
But the RIAA already did that well over a year ago. Specifically, the RIAA determined that 100 streams are equivalent to one single physical purchase (or digital download). Under this rubric, absent any physical or digital sales, an artist needs 100 million streams to go platinum.
Although Forbes commented that the RIAA is not keeping up with times, the fact that the RIAA has long since changed its platinum standards suggests otherwise. Perhaps it is the entertainment lawyers that need to readjust their perceptions of the music business. It’s a Spotify world now, and we’re just living in it. The RIAA has accepted this, and it may be only a matter of time before the criteria are amended to remove physical and digital sales altogether if new albums become available for streaming instantly.
But that day still seems pretty far away. After all, 1989 is about to go platinum under the “old school” RIAA standards—and it’s only been out a week.
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