From YouTube to Billboard: How Album Sales are Calculated


Luke Goodman

Music plays a vital role in all of our lives, from kpop, to classical, to rap, it brings people of all backgrounds together. But how much do we really know about the industry we’re so enamored with? Musicians release their songs not only because they want to share them with the world, but also because that’s how they earn money: through people listening to and enjoying their music. 

Rap/hip-hop artist Drake released his sixth studio album Certified Lover Boy on September 3, 2021. The accomplished Canadian rapper and songwriter has made strides throughout his career, most recently due to the vast success of Certified Lover Boy. The album sold over 613,000 units, the highest of 2021. But what exactly does this number mean? Total derived album sales can become extremely complicated and are often misleading. 

In the majority of the twentieth century, album sales were generally easy to calculate accurately and efficiently because there was only one primary method of music consumption: vinyl records. These records would be purchased from stores, and the total number of purchases would be added together, deriving a total album sales number. Since then, technology has advanced considerably, and methods of music distribution and consumption have diversified entirely. From Apple Music, to Spotify, to YouTube downloads, to Amazon Music purchases and more, the options are truly limitless. 

The way in which we consume music has changed from purely vinyl-records to several streaming services, platforms, downloads, and more. Streaming is currently the most popular way in which individuals access their music. With these services, listeners pay a monthly subscription to  gain access to millions of songs right at their fingertips. Every time a listener plays a song all the way through, it is calculated as one stream. Contrary to what most people believe, one stream is not equivalent to one album sale. For instance, while Certified Lover Boy has 613,000 album sales, this number represents only a fraction of listeners who actually “streamed” songs from the album.

According to Digital Music News, YouTube was by far the most popular streaming service among American adults, with over 44 percent of US adults listing YouTube as their preferred music-streaming platform. On YouTube, a stream, otherwise known as a view, is when a video is played continuously from start to finish. 1500 streams on YouTube is equal to one album sale. So theoretically, if everyone who listened to Certified Lover Boy used YouTube to stream it, Drake would have over 919 million YouTube streams. YouTube pays creators an average of 0.18 cents per stream, so Drake would have made over 1.5 million dollars. However, this is on YouTube alone, and there are other streaming platforms used to access music, and pay-per-stream varies from platform to platform. 

Spotify and Apple Music have adopted the billboard method of calculating album sales. The billboard method consists of track-equivalent-albums (TEA’s) and stream-equivalent albums (SEA’s). Since Apple Music and Spotify are both streaming services, SEA’s are the only types of sales calculated on both platforms. Both platforms have two types of streams: premium streams, which come from listeners who pay for a “premium” Apple Music or Spotify account, and free streams, which come from listeners who stream from free accounts. SEA’s are calculated by adding up total song streams from an album and dividing by 1,250 for premium streams or by 3,750 for free streams. Essentially, 1,250 premium streams, or 3,750 free streams, are equivalent to one album sale. 

It is clear that both platforms value their paying customers much more than their non-paying ones, but this is all at the expense of the artist. If an artist has a high stream count from free listeners, they will have fewer album sales than an artist with the same number of streams from premium listeners. However, this does not affect the money the artist makes from these platforms through streams. The average pay-per-stream  is 0.4 cents on Spotify and 1 cent on Apple Music, regardless of whether the streams are free or premium.

Why should artists care about their album sales? The answer lies primarily with Billboard, a prominent American music and entertainment magazine. Each week, Billboard utilizes the total album sales to publish charts that show the most popular albums. There are four different levels of popularity an album can reach on Billboard: gold, platinum, multi-platinum, and diamond, increasing in level respectively. Even if an album reaches gold level or higher, it is considered a major success. In order for an album to achieve “gold” standards, it must reach at least 500,000 album sales. For an album to reach “platinum,” it must reach at least one million total album sales. Multi-platinum status requires at least two million sales. After this, it increases in increments of one million, so if an album were to reach three million sales, it would be regarded as “triple platinum.” Once an album reaches 10 million sales, it is regarded as the highest rank status: “Diamond.” Only 92 albums in the world have achieved diamond-status, including artists such as The Beatles, TLC, Eminem, Madonna, and Led Zeppelin. Reaching any album rank on Billboard is a huge accomplishment and represents the success of the album and popularity of the artist.

Music plays a vital role in all of our daily lives, but many of us are oblivious to the science and algorithm behind it. There is a whole world of business that many lovers of music are simply unaware of. The better we understand how we access our music, the more we can learn to appreciate it.