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Rihanna, the RIAA, and making a platinum record in 2016

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The bodies we trust to deliver an accurate, historical commercial record are doing their best to keep up with an industry that's changing every day, but they can't really help but fall behind. What does it mean when an artist sells a million albums to a corporation? What does it mean when the biggest song of Drake's career is kept from the No. 1 spot it deserves by exclusivity agreements? The road to a revised all-in-one metric has been bumpy at best, and this week the RIAA has enacted a huge change in an attempt to keep up with the definition of what a hit record is.

Jamieson Cox: Micah, there's never been a more confusing time to watch the music charts. Billboard has to fold in radio airplay, traditional sales, digital sales, and streaming data to accurately depict the popularity of new singles and albums; artists are partnering with streaming services and tech companies for promotional campaigns and exclusivity windows; release dates are being thrown into the wind, rendered totally meaningless by the digital era. (And none of this obscures the fact that overall sales are still tanking, Adele or no Adele.) We know more than ever about how music is being distributed and consumed, but the meaning of all that information has never been more difficult to understand.

Would it surprise you if I said it's complicated?

I can't think of a better example than the release of Rihanna's new album ANTI, which was finally made available last week after years of preparation and scattershot promotion. In one respect, it was the least successful release of Rihanna's career by several orders of magnitude: the album leaked hours before it was supposed to go on sale, and it ended up debuting at No. 27 on Billboard's weekly album charts. (According to Nielsen, the album sold fewer than 1,000 digital copies, and it won't be physically released until February 5th.) Look at it another way, and it's proof Rihanna is more popular and vital than ever: over 1.47 million copies of ANTI were downloaded in under a day, and it topped the charts in 68 countries. What's the real story?

Micah Singleton: Would it surprise you if I said it's complicated? Let's start with that 1.47 million figure, which is flashy but misleading. Rihanna didn't sell 1.47 million copies in 15 hours: she gave them away as part of a deal with Samsung, which helped promote ANTI and is sponsoring Rihanna's upcoming world tour. Billboard doesn't count free promotions in its calculations, so all of the copies were struck from that record. If ANTI were released on a Friday instead of a Wednesday, it probably wouldn't have mattered — she would've sold enough post-giveaway copies during the tracking week to reach No. 1. (When Jay Z struck a similar deal with Samsung and gave away copies of his 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail, it still topped the charts.)

That didn't happen, of course: a few hours after leaking, ANTI was released through Tidal late Wednesday night. It was exclusively accessible through the service for a full 24 hours: users could download their free copy, stream the album in full, or buy a copy once the downloads ran out. By the time it was made available on iTunes late Thursday night, Nielsen's tracking week had wrapped up. That's how one of the world's most popular artists had a smaller debut sales week than nearly all of her contemporaries.

Cox: Can you explain why Rihanna would agree to give away more than a million copies of her album for nothing?

It's 2016, and this change was inevitable

Singleton: Well, she's not doing it for nothing. Samsung's paying her a ton of money to attach its name to her thriving brand, whether it's sponsoring her tour, or buying piles and piles of albums it's just going to give away. She might have sold that many copies of ANTI anyway, but the deal with Samsung means guaranteed money up front. She's also going to earn a ton of honorifics and certifications. "Work" debuted in the top 10, and it's only going to climb; the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) gave ANTI a platinum certification because it recognizes the impact of sponsorship deals, and the album is going to reach No. 1 in its first full week on sale anyway, even without huge bumps from other streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.

Rihanna is getting paid more and getting recognized faster for ANTI than during any of her previous album launches. Sure it would've been better if the album didn't leak and she topped the charts in her first week, but that doesn't change the huge payday she got.

Cox: I'm glad you brought up the RIAA, because it made some news this week too by announcing it's going to start counting streams when it awards gold and platinum certifications. It'll use numbers like the one Billboard uses: if a song is streamed 1,500 times, it'll equal one album sale. When the RIAA applied the calculation retroactively, a bunch of albums went gold and platinum right away. Why is the RIAA doing this now?

Rihanna

Rihanna accepts her platinum album plaque for A Girl Like Me in 2006 (Photo by M. Von Holden/FilmMagic)

Singleton: Essentially to catch up with the times. More and more people have turned to streaming and albums sales are dropping. The RIAA's two music tracking counterparts, Billboard and Nielsen, have accepted an accumulation of streams as album sales for some time. That meant from time to time milestones like 1 million records sold were recognized by the media and fans, but not with a platinum plaque at the same time.

This week, that changed. The Weeknd's Beauty Behind The Madness has been certified double platinum, and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is now platinum, despite pushback from Lamar's label TDE. Most people in the industry will be happy about this, and some won't, but it's 2016 and this change was inevitable.

Cox: As a fan and critic, I try not to get too precious about this stuff lest I sound like some ancient baseball fan railing against PEDs and modern therapeutic methods. If artists are being properly compensated for their work in one way or another, all of this business chicanery is doing some good. And Rihanna and her contemporaries aren't popular because a handful of numbers say so: they're popular because millions of people around the world connect with their music and personalities. All of that is true, and yet a part of me is yearning for the relative simplicity of the analog era: sell a bunch of albums and count the number of times they're played on the radio. If every major 2016 album release merits a commercial explainer like this one, that means that the industry still needs to build a better yardstick.