Justin Bieber's 'Baby' With New Streaming Data Beats Out Elton John For RIAA's Top Platinum Single of All Time

Bieber's song "Baby" featuring Ludacris becomes the highest-certified single in history now that the RIAA incorporates on-demand streaming numbers into its Gold and Platinum certifications for digital singles. Elton John's double-sided hit "Candle in the Wind"/"Something About the Way You Look Tonight" was previously the top song in history with a certification of 11-times platinum all the way back in 1997. Bieber's "Baby," which has 3.9 million track sales and over 857 million views on Vevo, is now 12-times platinum.

Exclusive: On-Demand Streams Now Count Toward RIAA Gold & Platinum

A gold or platinum certification that incorporates activity on streaming services is an accurate representation of the world consumers live in today. On-demand streaming services have become such a popular way to experience music that YouTube is often called "the new radio." For track certifications the RIAA counts streams only from services that compensate record labels. Among them are video services YouTube and Vevo and audio services Spotify, Muve Music, Rhapsody, MOG, Xbox Music and Slacker.

The digital-era songs with the highest certifications are some of the most popular videos. "Baby" is the second-most-watched video on YouTube. Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie" featuring Rihanna, now 11-times platinum, is fourth all-time at YouTube with over 560 million streams globally (for certification purposes, only streams originated in the U.S. are counted). Now 10-times platinum, Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" is eighth with nearly 519 million streams. Two spots below "Bad Romance" is Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," which rose to nine-times platinum.

The addition of streaming data meant there are 11 Gold, 18 Platinum and 27-multi-Platinum new Digital Single Awards. Eleven of those songs received their first Digital Single Awards. Lana Del Rey's "Video Games" and The Weeknd's "Wicked Games" were among the six new Gold certifications. The new platinum certifications included Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" and Andy Grammer's "Keep Your Head Up." Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" rose to double-Platinum.  

Adding streaming numbers to certifications was "easy to decide as a matter of principle" but much more complicated from a procedural standpoint, says RIAA Chairman and CEO Cary Sherman. The organization gathered a group of label marketing, business and data-analysis executives for a yearlong effort to decide exactly how streaming numbers should be integrated into certifications.

Sherman explains that the Gold and Platinum certification program has always been based on "the consumer saying he or she wants a particular piece of music." For decades that demand was represented by purchases, but today can vote with both their pocketbooks and their clicks. But the RIAA decided to count streams only from "pull" services like subscription service Spotify because the intent behind them is similar to a purchase. Streams from "push" services, or non-interactive Internet radio services like Pandora, are excluded because they don't reflect the same consumer intent.

Once the RIAA decided to include on-demand streams, the inclusion of video on-demand streams fell into place. Sherman says the decision was made easier by the way people use on-demand video services to discover and experience songs. Whether the stream comes from an audio or a video service, a person has chosen to hear a specific song.  
Not all music videos are counted. The RIAA chose not to include user-generated content (UGC) and count only streams for a song's official video. "We spent a lot of time on this one because UGC is a very important component of streaming these days." A video that goes viral, such as Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" or Baauer's " Harlem Shake" receives a significant share of total views because people are attracted to the video as much or more than the actual sound recording. To keep in line with principles behind certifications, the RIAA will count only streams that resulted from the artist's creation and not reward streams that may have resulted from the user-generated video itself. (Billboard counts both official and UGC videos for the Hot 100 chart.)
Another consideration was how to mathematically incorporate streaming numbers in certifications while maintaining "the value of the award," as Sherman puts it. It would need a conversion rate that would stand over time. Using the monetary value of the streams wouldn't work -- data collection would be impractical. After looking at sales and streaming trends of popular songs, the RIAA decided that 100 on-demand streams equal 1 download for the purposes of certifications.  
The end result, at least in the short term, is more certifications. Perhaps in the future a decline in download sales will be balanced by the inevitable increase in streaming activity. But for now, more artists and songs will be certified Gold and Platinum. Welcome to the new record business.