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With Platinum Albums Going Extinct, What Will Signify a Successful Record?

Tim Boyle, Getty Images

In the record industry, as in regular life, Taylor Swift should always be regarded as an exception to the rule — not the norm. You’re not going to find all that many leggy 24-year-olds that look like her in your corner bar and you’re not going to find many musicians who still sell records like she does.

After all, few artists have ever experienced the sort of meteoric rise as the 24-year-old country crossover has since she burst into public consciousness in 2008 and, gauging by the current sorry state of the business, it’s unlikely many will enjoy the same sort of success again. Swift released four albums between 2006 and 2012 and each have been certified no worse than quadruple platinum by the RIAA (meaning they sold no worse than 4 million copies each).

Now with her recently released fifth album, ‘1989,’ poised to become the long-awaited first platinum album of 2014 (not including Disney’s ‘Frozen’ soundtrack), she’s being hailed as a savior for the struggling industry — living proof that an actual human being can still sell an actual album to other actual human beings.

But let’s keep in mind that Swift doesn’t play by the music industry’s rules — the industry plays by Swift’s. While most artists are contractually bound to the traditional methods of producing and distributing an album (or at least what’s left of them), Swift is able to call her own shots: the most notable being that ‘1989’ is not available on streaming services like Spotify and Pandora — something only Beyonce-level artists (like Beyonce) have any control over. Does that have anything to do with the fact that ‘1989’ will be just the 19th album to sell a million copies in a single week since Nielsen SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991? Considering that the second best-selling album of the year — Beyonce’s self-titled album — only has four of its 14 tracks available for streaming, it’d be naive to say there isn’t a tangible direct correlation.

"What metric will we use to determine how an album performs?"While platinum records have always only really been applicable to the hugest mainstream pop acts, record sales in general have been the accepted industry standard for gauging an album’s commercial success or failure. But with that model now in the same stack containing eight-track players and Chumbawamba CDs, the question is: What metric will we use to determine how an album performs?

Here are a few possibilities, but each comes with its own fatal flaws:

Streaming Service Popularity

When referring to album sales, it’s important not to get hung up on physical objects. Aside from audiophiles who collect vinyl and the 42 people in the U.S. who still buy all their CDs at Target, album sales are largely digital now (a.k.a. downloaded via iTunes). But even digital album sales — all that the labels are clinging to now — were down nearly 12-percent during the first half of the year while usage of subscription streaming services like Spotify jumped 42 percent during the same time. It doesn’t take an economics major to realize that paying $9.99 for a premium Spotify subscription (essentially giving you access to nearly all the songs in the world on any device) provides a little more value than shelling out $12.99 for one solitary album.

But can services like these — businesses with their own interests and potential conflicts of interest — be trusted to provide an accurate reflection of an album’s success? On one hand, all the numbers are right there — usually. Click on an artist on Spotify and you’ll immediately see how many times their top five songs have been streamed and you can also see the Top 100 artists, albums and songs on the service at any given moment. But since Spotify lends itself to picking and choosing songs from here and there and creating user playlists, it’s difficult to surmise exactly how those top albums are determined. Is it based on the number of individual streams that come from the songs? There is no way to quantify how many users listen to an entire album the entire way through, thus, no way to categorically determine its consumer success.

YouTube Views or Subscriptions

One of the easiest workarounds to actually paying for an album these days is simply to watch a video on YouTube. With the dawn of Vevo — the video hosting service owned by Universal Music Group, Google, Sony and Abu Dhabi Media — labels and bands are more and more frequently posting their new singles on YouTube before premiering it anywhere else. Part of it is the built-in community and growing use of channel subscriptions on YouTube, another part is the ease with which a video can be shared and embedded on social networks and blogs. The music channel on YouTube boasts more than 87 million subscribers — 10 million more than the next most popular channels (gaming and sports) and the drop off after that (down to 34 million for YouTube News) is significant.

The main problem with using YouTube as an indicator of an album’s popularity, however, is obvious: Some videos just feature audio and others are official music videos. In the scientific world, that’s called an apples to oranges comparison. Does the fact that OK Go’s typically ingenious clip for ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ has more than 6 million views in two days mean that ‘Hungry Ghosts,’ the album the song comes from, will sell 6 million copies? Well, OK Go’s biggest video — the 2009 “treadmill” video for ‘Here it Goes Again’ — has 23 million views but the album it comes from (2005’s ‘Oh No’) peaked at No. 69 on the Billboard chart.

Singles Performance

While nobody is putting on pants to run to Tower Records anymore to buy the hottest cassette singles (or “cassingles” if you’re nasty), nothing has changed the fact that it’s more efficient to spend $1.99 on one song you know you like than $15.99 on that one song and 13 others you’ll never listen to.  Although Swift’s album will be the first platinum record this year, 60 individual songs have sold more than 1 million copies. Still, when you compare the numbers to last year, even the number of platinum singles is down more than 20-percent.

On paper, you could argue that an album with, say, three Top 10 hits is a spectacular success, but then we start even further blurring the already fuzzy line between art and commercialism. Instead of being a cohesive piece of music written and meant to be appreciated as a whole, albums will continue to devolve into nothing more than a collection of disparate singles.

At any rate, it’s abundantly clear that everything about the music industry that seemed written in stone even just a decade ago no longer applies to the landscape today. Although, yes, Taylor Swift will have a platinum record, it no longer means what it once did. You could say that it ostensibly means more because it’s such a rarely accomplished feat, but let’s first level the playing field, put her album on Spotify like everyone else’s and see how the album does.

"Would it still be considered a success even if it didn’t achieve that platinum status?"Would it still be considered a success even if it didn’t achieve that platinum status? Almost definitely. But by the time she’s ready to release her next album, everything will likely have changed even more.

Next: We Can't Decide if this Mashup Improves Taylor Swift or Ruins Aphex Twin

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