Music sales numbers for the first nine months of the year came in earlier this week, and they’re not pretty. Notably, no single artist’s album has sold 1 million copies yet through September, as Billboard reports, citing Nielsen SoundScan. A post by a Forbes.com contributor, grimly titled “Not One Artist’s Album Has Gone Platinum In 2014,” has since been making the rounds. But is it accurate? And should music listeners be worried?
The basic depressing point is sound enough. Disney’s Frozen soundtrack has sold 3.1 million copies. No individual act’s full-length has cracked the million mark during the calendar year. At the same time last year, five artists’ albums had each moved a million units. (Justin Timberlake‘s 20/20 Experience was out in front, with 2.3 million.) And the next-best-selling albums of 2014, like Frozen, are from 2013: Beyoncé‘s self-titled album, with 776,000, and Lorde‘s Pure Heroine, with 754K. That’s a dismal bit of data.
Still, there are a couple of reasons the notion of no platinum albums by a single artist in 2014 could be misleading. And the million-seller drought coincides with a broader shift away from buying albums toward streaming tracks, which raises a whole other set of issues but doesn’t necessarily mean people have stopped wanting to hear new music.
First, there almost certainly will be at least one artist with a 2014 platinum album. Billboard cites predictions that Taylor Swift‘s 1989 will sell more than 750K in its first week alone; another projection is even higher. Eric Church‘s The Outsiders, the top-selling album released this year with 722K, and Coldplay‘s recent Ghost Stories, with just short of that, are also close to the million mark. And 2014 albums could still be on the way from such big names as Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Kanye West.
What’s more, technically speaking, artists have had platinum albums this year. The Recording Industry Association of America, not SoundScan, bestows gold and platinum certifications. And the RIAA tells Wondering Sound it has certified 27 total platinum albums in 2014, though it’s true that none yet were released in 2014.
Of albums certified platinum this year, 10 became available in the last three months of 2013, including not just the Frozen soundtrack and Beyoncé but Eminem‘s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Miley Cyrus‘s Bangerz and One Direction‘s Midnight Memories. Other 2013 artist albums, among them Pure Heroine, Daft Punk‘s Random Access Memories and West’s Yeezus, also took until 2014 to go platinum. Older releases, such as Lana Del Rey‘s 2012 Born to Die and Trey Songz‘s 2009 Ready, hit platinum status for the first time this year, as well.
Clearly, these certifications aren’t what people mean when they say no artists’ albums have gone platinum in 2014. But they’re examples of artists’ albums that literally have gone platinum in 2014.
A technicality? Sure. But it may be only a matter of time before an album actually released this calendar year goes platinum. The RIAA has certified 42 gold albums in 2014, including 11 that hit shelves (physical or virtual) since January 1. Naturally, Church and Coldplay’s albums are among them. Will Miranda Lambert‘s gold-certified Platinum (479K) be denied the honor of one day earning its title?
Even within the the category of traditional albums, other factors may diminish the importance of selling a million copies. U2‘s Songs of Innocence only went on sale this week, but how should we account for the 26 million people that downloaded the album, according to an Apple exec speaking with Billboard? Thom Yorke isn’t exactly a platinum-seller these days, but his Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes boasted 1 million paid or free downloads in its first week.
And what about Beyoncé’s Beyoncé? The surprise release hasn’t sold a million copies in this calendar year, but it has easily exceeded that in the 10-plus months since it appeared on iTunes on December 13, 2013. Beyoncé was last year’s No. 8 seller, with 1.8 million units.
The fact that the No. 8 album of 2013 still sold almost 2 million copies does show how much further the industry’s marquee releases have fallen in 2014. At the end of last year, every album in the top 10 had more than 1 million in sales. That’s probably not going to happen this year.
But the decline has been long in the works. Even including Frozen, this year marked the third straight year that just one album had sold more than 1 million copies at the midpoint. Last year, it was Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience. Before 2012, multiple albums had managed to cross the million mark by the end of June every year since 1991.
The album remains a go-to way of thinking about music, but it’s not necessarily the most relevant gauge for the health of the industry anymore. Streaming keeps making up a bigger and bigger portion of music revenues: $859 million in the first six months of the year, a 28 percent increase, according to the RIAA. The industry’s revenues overall slid 5 percent to $3.2 billion.
Since last year, the RIAA has counted streams toward its totals for gold and platinum singles. The 2014 platinum releases that tend to get celebrated on the industry group’s Gold & Platinum Facebook page — Charli XCX, Meghan Trainor — are singles, based on streams as well as sales. The RIAA says it has certified 133 digital songs platinum this year, and 27 of them are from 2014. Given listeners’ ongoing shift toward streaming, how long might it be before platinum album certifications also take streams into account?
There’s room for debate about royalties, but streaming had better pick up the slack if listeners want the industry to stay in somewhat decent health. Download sales, which got off to a dramatically slow start this year, keep falling. Digital album sales were down 11.5 percent in the first nine months of 2014, according to SoundScan, while digital track sales skidded by 12.9 percent.
The statistic about a lack of million-selling artist albums so far this year, then, is just that: A statistic. It’s an interesting piece of a trivia, and it’s indicative of the bigger changes for music, but it’s also somewhat arbitrary. And it doesn’t tell us much we couldn’t already have learned.
Listeners willing to put in the work will keep being able to find albums outside the million-seller category. Listeners who care about their favorite stars going platinum had better heed the tongue-in-cheek advice sometimes given to voters: Stream early and often.