Today, the RIAA (the Recording Industry Assn. of America) made big news with its decision to include on-demand audio and video song streaming in its certification methodology.  Here’s how it works: previously, songs had to sell 500,000 units (through physical and digital sales) to be certified gold and 1 million units to be certified platinum. Two million and above counts as multi-platinum.

Now, streaming will figure in the tabulations: every 100 streams will count as the equivalent of 1 download. Take something like Psy’s “Gentleman” or Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” both of which were much bigger streaming sensations than digital sales successes.  They will go gold much faster based on a few days’ worth of streams (although only US streams will count in the designations) than a song that people are plunking down money to buy.  User-generated videos will not count.

To be sure, the music industry has been horrifically slow to embrace change and new technologies. Its arrogance and belief that consumers would continue to buy full albums when they wanted singles lead to the creation of Napster and widespread piracy.  Plus, internecine fighting over whether steaming counts as a sale or as airplay further muddied the issue, especially when it came to figuring out royalty payments for songwriters and artists, so congrats to the RIAA for not moving at a glacial pace and for getting the industry to agree to the changes (although finding new ways to congratulate themselves have never been the music industry’s problem). 

Also, once Billboard added YouTube streaming into the calculations for the Billboard Hot 100 (it already included select other streaming services), it was really only a matter of time before the RIAA made this call. Billboard’s move helped legitimize streaming. Among the streaming services now included in the RIAA’s tabulations are MOG, Muve Music, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify, Xbox Music, MTV.com, Vevo, Yahoo and YouTube.

Here are my issues with the decision:

*Streaming is not a sale. RIAA certifications, whether or albums or singles, have always been based on sales. Even in this transitioning world between physical vs. digital and buying vs. streaming, a sale still counts as a level of commitment that streaming does not. Now, if I have an incredible yen to listen to The Beach Boys’ “Sail On Sailor” and I’m too lazy to go into the other room and grab the CD, I simply call up Spotify and play it 12 times in a row (yes, this is a true example). My laziness will now help songs become certified gold and platinum.

*This move comes at a time when the music industry continues to be evolving as sales continue to fall. Digital sales have not increased to offset the decline of physical sales, much to the disappointment of the music industry.  In some ways, this feels like a panacea for the music industry to falsely convince itself that the sky isn’t falling because it can now crow about increased certifications and make artists feel good about themselves. The music industry has never been shy about finding ways to pat itself on the back, but this is basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

*People consume music differently now than they did even two years ago, and the RIAA’s move is recognition of that, however the 100:1 ratio seems too low to me as the opening rate. As we move toward sustainable subscription models, that ratio could be correct, but for now, the ratio  should be higher: maybe 1000 streams to one download. As sales continue to erode and streams climb even higher, then bring the numbers closer together, but by starting at 100:1, the RIAA hasn’t left much wiggle room as the climate continues to shift.

What do you think about the shift?