When was the last time you bought an album? For many of us, it’s likely ancient history. Taylor Swift’s Midnights costs $12.99 for the CD ($29.99 for the vinyl), when you could spend less on an Apple Music subscription and listen to millions of songs instead. But it begs the question: How many times do you actually need to stream an album to make it worth an album sale?
In the past, the math was pretty straightforward. The industry considered three singles sales as equivalent to selling one album. So, count up the number of singles sold, divide by three, then add to the the number of albums sold. Easy.
Of course, the industry itself soon changed rapidly, as digital music hit the scene. Illegal downloads prompted change quick, and Apple’s iTunes was there to take advantage. Now, consumers had an easy way to not only buy albums on their computers, but individual songs instead. You didn’t need to pony up $10 or $20 to buy an entire CD for that one song you like: You could just buy the song for 99 cents.
Now, the only thing more convenient than instant music purchases is free music. Ad-supported streaming meant people could listen to whatever they wanted without spending a dime, so long as they dealt with some ad reads every so often. Paid subscriptions offered better quality music sans ads, for the price of one album. Whether you pay for it with money or ads, you now have access to virtually any song you want at all times. People still buy music, of course. Vinyl sales are solid, and even CDs are having a moment, but there’s no arguing streaming is the current money-maker.
There needs to be some standard in order to account for all the different ways people consume music today, and that standard is the album-equivalent unit. The standard as the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) defines it is as follows: One album sale equals 10 song downloads or 1,500 song streams. That’s the formula they use to determine when albums reach Gold (500,000 units), Platinum (1,000,000 units), multi-Platinum (2,000,000 units) and Diamond (10,000,000 units).
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While RIAA wasn’t alone in using this standard for years, times have changed. Billboard and Nielsen now consider the difference between paid streaming services, like Spotify and Apple Music, and ad-supported tiers like Spotify free or YouTube. They then break down the streaming services like this: 1,250 premium audio streams, 3,750 ad-supported streams, or 3,750 video streams equals one album sale.
So, the next time you watch a music video for an artist on YouTube, you “bought” 1/3,750 of an album for them. When you stream a track on Apple Music, that’s 1/1,250 or 1/1,500 album units, depending on who’s counting.
Let’s do some math. Midnights (3am Edition) has 20 tracks. Going off Billboard’s measurements, it would take 62.5 full listens on a paid platform like Apple Music to equal one album sale. Going off RIAA’s, you need to listen to it 75 times through. Since the album is an hour and nine minutes long, that’s 72 or 86 hours of listening, when one $12.99 purchase would accomplish the same. Of course, if you use an ad-supported service, that’s even longer: 187.5 listens, or over 215 hours of your time, and that’s before factoring in the ads!
It’s evident, then, why an artist like Taylor Swift would employ every marketing tactic possible to have fans buy copies of her albums. It takes a second for someone to pay for a CD, but tens if not hundreds of hours to stream a “sale.” Designing Midnights as a clock that requires four copies of the album to complete means quadruple the sales from the most dedicated of fans. Why wait for up to 860 hours of streams when you could have four album sales at once?
But hey, it’s obviously working out for Taylor. With Midnights, Taylor Swift is the first musician in Billboard history to hold the entire top 10 in one week, with an additional four tracks rounding out the top 20. It opened with 1.578 million equivalent album units, which, while staggering, isn’t actually the record. That award goes to Adele, who’s album 25 opened with 3.482 million album units.
As of this article, Anti-Hero is actually still number one, a fact not lost on Drake. While his new music claimed spots two through nine on the top 10, Taylor Swift’s biggest track is still winning. In an Instagram post celebrating his successes, he covered up her spot with emojis, while notably not covering up the 10th spot, Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ Unholy.
Drama aside, these artists know how to use these album units to boost their numbers to extremes virtually never seen before. The Beatles shipped 3.2 million copies of Let It Be in 13 days, while Taylor Swift moved three million worldwide album units in Midnights’ first week, with over one billion global streams making up that number. Whether those streams came from premium or ad-supported services, it all adds up to a lot of albums.