How Jay-Z's "4:44" went platinum instantly and why it's meaningless

When metrics shift and records are bought in bulk by corporations, a questionable honor becomes fully hollow

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 8, 2017 6:30PM (EDT)

Jay-Z   (Getty For Tidal)
Jay-Z (Getty For Tidal)

Jay-Z's new, titanic, essential album "4:44" was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) less than a week after its release. Yet does it even matter, as it surely would have only a few years ago?

In the same article in which it announced that "4:44" became a platinum album (i.e., selling at least 1 million units), Variety explains how the RIAA's method of determining platinum status has evolved in the past several years.

"The RIAA began incorporating streaming numbers into album certifications on Feb. 1, 2016, using a formula similar to that of Nielsen Music’s whereby 1,500 on-demand audio and/or video song streams = 10 track sales = 1 album sale (the organization began incorporating streaming numbers into single certifications in 2013)," Variety writes.

Interestingly, "4:44" was first released exclusively to customers of Sprint and Tidal, which raises the possibility that it didn't achieve platinum status due to individual customer purchases alone. As one source told Variety, "a sale counts toward a certification if purchased directly by the customer — or a business can purchase the album or song and offer it to fans, who must take affirmative steps to acquire the album or song. Fans participated, took action and downloaded Jay-Z’s album offered by Sprint."

In other words, distributors for "4:44" could have purchased the album in bulk — perhaps even more than a million copies of it — and then given it away, thereby allowing it to reach platinum status instantly. This was what happened with Jay-Z in 2013 with "Magna Carta: Holy Grail," when Samsung bought 1 million downloads and gave them away for free to Galaxy smartphone owners three days before it was released to the general public.

It certainly doesn't help appearances that the photograph of Jay-Z's platinum plaque presentation was taken before the album was even released.

Again, this doesn't prove that Tidal or anyone artificially inflated Jay-Z's numbers, despite Samsung's previous activities. Indeed, Roc Nation has told Billboard that the platinum status was only given to reflect 1 million downloads, not any of the streams. That said, if doubt can be plausibly raised about the authenticity of an album's platinum status, doesn't that suggest that the standard itself is outdated?

In the case of "4:44," it's noteworthy that, as it had a one-week exclusivity deal with Tidal, it was limited in terms of initial sales regardless of whether it achieved platinum status through that medium or not.

Now, it's always been easy to suppose that there is a fundamental problem in holding platinum status as truly meaningful. There are countless albums that went platinum, stayed on the billboard charts for a few weeks and then quickly faded from our cultural consciousness. Similarly, there are plenty of albums and songs that retained devout followings despite never achieving platinum status, or which took years to take off with their intended market.

Today, it's become even more questionable to attempt to quantify the inherently unquantifiable — such as the cultural impact of a particular song or album — given that we can clearly see that the numbers here have become even more fungible. This isn't to say that those financial figures aren't important, but rather that they shouldn't carry weight beyond the boardrooms. Attaching a level of profundity to their significance, and thereby confusing commercial success with more culturally meaningful achievements, seems more and more pointless.

If Jay-Z's latest album has indeed been downloaded over 1 million times, then he deserves to be congratulated for reaching that milestone. That doesn't mean that the rest of us shouldn't raise an eyebrow at the unusual speed and circumstances surrounding that achievement, however, or question whether we should even care. Either way, both the man and the album are legendary with or without a shiny platinum record in a frame.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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