The Hodgepodge: RIAA Certification, Streaming, and the Changing Face of Music Consumption

On Monday February 1, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) changed how the organization will certify albums and singles. The change reflects digital streams of songs and albums for an artist in addition to sales. Prior to the change, an album or song was certified Gold when 500,000 copies were sold, Platinum at 1,000,000, and Diamond at 10,000,000. With the change, the RIAA will take into account both video and audio streaming, and have decided that 1,500 streams is equal to 10 song sales or one album sale. Simple math then tells us that 750 million streams alone will earn an artist a Gold certification.

With the adjusted certification process, 17 albums achieved Gold or Platinum status on February 1. Three of the 17 albums were country albums: Brett Eldredge’s Bring You Back (Gold), Miranda Lambert’s Platinum (Platinum), and Sam Hunt’s Montevallo (2x Multi-Platinum).

From a business standpoint for the RIAA, this is a good move to keep with the changing tide of how consumers are listening to their music. Streaming is only growing and it’s important for music groups like the RIAA and Billboard to stay relevant with their reporting. However, reactions to the change have been mixed. Country artists are loving the news. One big challenger of the new rules is Top Dawg Entertainment’s, CEO Anthony Tiffith. TDE is the label for Kendrick Lamar, whose critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly has now been certified Platinum due to the inclusion of streaming. Tiffith tweeted that he won’t acknowledge the certification until old school album sales earn the album its Platinum rating.

One theory I have for the push back could be due to the low streaming payouts to artists/labels vs physical/digital album sales. Last April, The Guardian published an article with an infographic breaking down artist payouts among various streaming services in comparison to standard album sales. The infographic is organized to show how many units must be sold or streamed in order to achieve a monthly minimum wage income.

For instance (based on the numbers on the linked infographic), for an artist signed to a label to earn a monthly minimum wage from Spotify with a $0.0011/stream payout, there would need to be 1,117,021 streams for a monthly wage. At that rate, $1,228.72 is earned each month. And looking at RIAA’s rule of 1,500 streams per album sale, a streaming total of 1,117,021 is equal to about 744 albums sold (rounding down). By comparison, 744 albums sold per month via iTunes will earn a signed artist $1,711.20. And 744 albums per month sold physically in a retail store will be $2,053.44 for a signed artist.

Now these aren’t concrete numbers as to how streaming services directly compare to actual sales. Keep in mind that the numbers on the graphic are 10 months old, and the math I applied based on RIAA criteria may not be direct snapshots of how a company like Spotify may pay out an artist. Some of the numbers gathered from the article were assumed or generalized numbers based on typical business practices between labels and artists.

What this does give us, however, is a small baseline in which to judge a service like Spotify, arguably the most popular streaming service, in regards to actual album sales. I can understand a label CEO being against the inclusion of streaming in regards to albums sales when payouts from streaming are lower than album sales.

With the RIAA accepting streaming, it further solidifies the consumption mode of music, giving more importance to the notion of fair payouts. Streaming services are not going away, and as more and more music associations and organizations restructure themselves to include streaming, streaming needs to continue to fine tune itself to be accepted across the board. Streaming has a lot of push back from the music industry because they see the technology as a threat. But even cassettes scared the music industry back in the day.

For those against streaming, one bright spot is the resurgence of vinyl records. The growth of vinyl is nearly double than the growth in streaming subscriptions. Vinyl’s growth, aside from the novelty aspect, shows that consumers want physical copies of their music along with digital files. Never before have there been this many outlets to consume music. CDs, vinyl, digital downloads, radio, and streaming. Streaming’s skyrocketing popularity cannot be overlooked.

Like it or not, on-demand streaming has immersed itself into our musical culture. The impact streaming can have for an independent or budding artist is crucial. However manufactured his rise was, Kane Brown’s internet popularity earned him a deal with Sony. Maren Morris’ EP was an online only release, now she’s also signed with Sony and is getting the iHeartMedia On The Verge treatment.

Slowly we are seeing the industry adapt to streaming’s popularity. RIAA’s move to include streaming in album and single certifications is just another step in the long road ahead. I don’t think RIAA’s current rules are an absolution (nor do I think they’re perfect), and we may see them further adjusted to improve how the organization looks at streaming. Labels and radio are slowly looking into streaming and internet trends to capitalize on what’s popular with consumers. This is only the beginning of the music industry’s adaptation to streaming, and we may in fact be on the brink of a year in which we see major shifts in response to streaming’s popularity. There’s quite a bit to still work out on both ends of the spectrum, but I think major changes are on the horizon.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • The following albums are all being released tomorrow:
    • Dori Freeman‘s self-titled album
    • Lucinda Williams’ The Ghosts of Highway 20
    • Charles Kelley’s The Driver
    • Freakwater’s Scheherazade
    • The Infamous Stringdusters’ Ladies and Gentlemen
  • Addison Johnson‘s I’m Just a Song EP will be released on February 9th.
  • Cole Swindell announced his second album, You Should Be Here, will be released on May 6th.
  • Dreamer: A Tribute to Kent Finlay will be released on March 2nd, exactly one year after Finlay’s death. Finlay was a songwriter in Texas and owner of the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. He is credited with jump-starting the careers of George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Randy Rogers. Rogers will duet with Sunny Sweeney on the album, along with James McMurtry, William Clark Green, and many others covering Finlay-written songs in his honor.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Luckenbach, Texas” Waylon Jennings. Is there a better opening lyric than “The only two things in life that make it worth livin’ is guitars that tune good and firm feelin’ women”?

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

“Bullet with Butterfly Wings” Smashing Pumpkins. The Smashing Pumpkins just announced a new tour this week. A friend in high school made me a mix CD of her favorite Smashing Pumpkins songs and still listen to that mix quite a bit. I love this song.

Tweet of the Week

Stout’s record, Dust & Wind, was self recorded and released last September. You can listen and purchase to the album on Bandcamp.

YouTube Comment of the Week

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 10.57.21 AM

This was commented on the video of Jason Isbell’s performance of “Flagship” at the Grand Ole Opry. I completely agree with this! Isbell performed the song with his wife, Amanda Shires, playing her violin and providing great harmonies. Click on the link for the video of the performance.

Country Perspective’s 40 Most Essential Country & Americana Albums of 2015

Country Perspective's 2015 Most Essential Albums

We’ve reached the end of 2015 and as you’ve seen over this last month there have numerous best of and worst of lists and everything in between. The “listpocalypse” as many dub it is finally ending and we can start focusing on new music really soon. But before we look forward to the new music of 2016, we want to look back one last time on the music of country and Americana in 2015. These are the albums we consider the absolute must listen albums of 2015 if you’re a fan of country and Americana. We should point out that this year’s essential albums list is different in that last year’s list was all albums that we ranked 8/10 or better. This year’s essential list only contains albums (and a few EPs) ranked 9/10 or better.

Originally we wanted to just have it narrowed down to 25 albums, but then it grew to 30 and then 35 before eventually 40. We wanted to make sure we go all of the great music on the list! Keep in mind if we didn’t put an album on this list it’s not because we’re haters or we’re attacking your favorite artist. Do not turn the comments section into “Well you didn’t put (insert name) on the list and you didn’t put this on the list, so I hate it.” Instead put together your own list in the comments if you want, as this is more constructive and creates more interesting conversation.

Now that I’ve gotten all of the ground rules out of the way, let’s get to the music. These are what we consider the 36 most essential country and Americana albums of 2015.

The Best of the Best

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch

Chris Stapleton – Traveller 

The Awesome Ones

Don Henley – Cass County 

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight 

Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer, Vol. 1

Turnpike Troubadours – Turnpike Troubadours

Sam Outlaw – Angeleno 

Jonathan Tyler – Holy Smokes

Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses

Pretty Damn Great

Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year

Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Cody Jinks – Adobe Sessions

Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood

Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material

Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds

Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter

The Malpass Brothers – The Malpass Brothers

Rick Elliot – West of the Rockies EP

The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning

“I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart 

George Strait – Cold Beer Conversation

Alan Jackson – Angels & Alcohol

James McMurtry – Complicated Game

Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – Django & Jimmie

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – The Traveling Kind

A Little Bit of Everything

John Moreland – High On Tulsa Heat

The Mavericks – Mono

Banditos – Banditos

Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone

Lindi Ortega – Faded Gloryville 

Will Hoge – Small Town Dreams

Jon Pardi – The B-Sides, 2011-2014 EP

Jamie Lin Wilson – Holidays & Wedding Rings

Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers 

Tony Furtado – The Bell

Allison Moorer – Down To Believing 

Kasey Chambers – Bittersweet

The Black Lillies – Hard To Please 

Country Perspective’s Best Country Albums of 2015 So Far

We’ve reached the mid-point of 2015, so it’s time to look back at the year so far for country music. Up first we take a look back at the best country albums of 2015 so far. There has certainly been a lot of great albums and the competition for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year award is already tightly contested.

Remember for an album to be considered for Album of the Year, it must receive a 10/10 score. Those won’t be the only ones listed below though, as all the highly rated albums so far will be highlighted. Remember too that it’s impossible for us to keep up with every single release and we do our best to cover the most albums possible. So please don’t be that person in the comments section that says something along the lines of: “This list is irrelevant because (insert album) isn’t on it” or “This list sucks.” Agree or disagree all you want, just be respectful about it. Not everyone has the same opinion, so keep this in mind.

So without further ado, the best country albums of 2015 so far (in no particular order)….

(Click on the album name to see the full review)

Album of the Year Candidates

Chris Stapleton Traveller

Chris Stapleton – Traveller

The hype was high heading into Chris Stapleton’s album. Not only did he meet the hype, he surpassed it with Traveller. I don’t think I could ask anymore from a country album than what I hear on this album. It has everything a country music fan should want in their music. What impressed me the most out of all is Stapleton’s voice. Holy shit I did not expect him to blow me away so much vocally. He’s easily one of the best in country music today. The songwriting is top-notch, but we knew that already. The instrumentation and production is spotless, as once again Dave Cobb is in top form. I have no complaints with this album, as Stapleton is a visionary. Traveller is a must-own and is easily one of the top candidates for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year.

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch

Whitey Morgan Sonic Ranch

What makes this album stand out above a lot of other country albums released so far is how cohesive and tight-knit everything is on this album. The instrumentation and the production is flat-out perfect. The lyrics are emotional and tell brilliant stories throughout it. Morgan’s bellowing voice reminds me of a lot of Waylon Jennings and Sturgill Simpson, yet Whitey is much more gruff and gritty giving it a different texture compared to the likes of Jennings and Simpson. The album is the exact right length of 10 songs. It leaves no room for unnecessary filler that can bring the quality down. It’s straight, no-holds barred, outlaw-style country music that will leave you wanting more. This is the kind of album that will make people take notice of Whitey Morgan and put him on the radar of country music fans everywhere. This is an artist and album everyone needs to hear. Sonic Ranch right now is one of the top candidates for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year. There are very few country albums better than this one.

Houndmouth Little Neon Limelight

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight

Little Neon Limelight is flawless in every aspect. Houndmouth’s vocals are dynamic and the harmonies will stick with you for a while. Each song tells a story or conveys some sort of emotion in the listener, which is what great music does. While there are a few somber songs, this album is mostly fun and even mixes in some good humor. This is an album I thinks some people might let slip through the cracks and miss out on. Don’t be one of these people. Anyone who appreciates great music should hear it. If you’re into groups like Shovels & Rope or The Lone Bellow, you’ll enjoy Houndmouth even more. I highly recommend this album. Without a doubt one of the best albums I’ve heard in 2015.

Blackberry Smoke Holding All The Roses

Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses

Overall, Holding All The Roses is what southern rock is all about. Each song is unique and adds quality to the album. The lyrics are fresh and just damn fun to listen to; it’s really hard to find a song on here that’s bad. The album is paced well and even when Blackberry Smoke venture down a country alley for a song or two, those country songs are better than pretty much everything that radio offers. Holding All The Roseshas a throwback feel to a golden era of rock and country music, delivering on every track. Their previous album, The Whippoorwill, was fantastic in its own right, but Blackberry Smoke followed it up with an equally outstanding record. Holding All The Roses will be a tough act to follow.

Bowen & Rogers Hold My Beer

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer, Vol. 1

Hold My Beer is simply put a fantastic album. There are no down moments in this album and it holds the listeners’ attentions the whole way through it. The rich and traditional instrumentation makes you want to listen to every song over and over again. I don’t think you can find too many pairs that would gel better than Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers either. This is a perfect example of why I want to see more collaborations in country music. On this album this two great artists in their own right came together and produced something amazing. I like how the full album name is Hold My Beer, Vol. 1. because that means this is the first of hopefully many more collaboration albums from these two. I definitely recommend buying this album. It’s a must-own for fans of country music.

The Malpass Brothers

The Malpass Brothers – The Malpass Brothers

Very rarely am I left speechless and a loss for words when listening to a great album, but this is the case with The Malpass Brothers’ new self-titled album. This is just pure, classic country that words can’t do justice. I’ve listened to this album over and over. I can’t get over how great it is and how two young artists like Chris and Taylor Malpass get country music so damn well. These guys were born to make country music. If you’re a fan of pop country music, don’t listen to this album. It’s simply too country for you. For those who love traditional and classic country, buy this album, press play and prepare to be amazed. You can’t get anymore country than this album. This is one of my favorites of 2015 and I can’t wait to hear more music from The Malpass Brothers for years to come.

Dwight Yoakam Second Hand Heart

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

There’s no other way to say it: Second Hand Heart is awesome. You aren’t going to hear many country albums as good as this one for the rest of the year. It has touching ballads, rocking honky-tonk and some of the best instrumentation I’ve heard on an album in recent memory. Yoakam’s voice is as brilliant as ever. I think I speak for Yoakam fans everywhere when I say this: don’t ever leave music again. While I enjoyed Yoakam as Pastor Phil in Four Christmases, I would much rather listen to him produce amazing albums like this one. I give Second Hand Heart my highest recommendation, as it’s definitely a top candidate for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year. Just like he did back in the 80s, Yoakam brings us traditional country in a world that badly needs it.

The Mavericks Mono

The Mavericks – Mono

Mono from start to finish seduces you with its sultry songs. The deeper you go into this album, the more you will love it. I thought In Time was the best this group could do, but they proved me wrong. Mono is even better than In Time, which I did not think could be possible. They have just set the bar pretty high for everyone else in country music in 2015. There’s a lot of heavy hitters yet to release their albums in 2015, but they better bring their all if they want to top this album. Without a doubt, a top contender for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year. Go buy this album and listen to it over and over. The Mavericks’ Mono is a shining example of not only how country music should be done, but really how all music should be done.

Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds

Overall, Blackbirds is dark and heartbreaking, but there’s an ironic beauty to the darkness. Gretchen Peters is a seasoned, award-winning songwriter. Her writing onBlackbirds is top-notch; with scenes and feelings described perfectly within each song while still driving the story forward. And as I mentioned before, the production on each track adds even more to the mood of the songs. Regardless of how dark the album may be, the consistency and focus put into making every aspect work in conjunction pays off. Blackbirds is a fantastic album.

The Lone Bellow

The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning

The Lone Bellow’s Then Came The Morning simply blows me away. The year is still new, but this album will hold up as one of the best in country music all year. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call this trio one of the most dynamic in music. If you’re looking for a comparison, I would say the closest is Shovels & Rope, except more bluesy and not quite as dark. So if you love Shovels & Rope, you’ll love this group. Some may say this isn’t a country album, but I don’t care what genre you put it under. This is just great music that everyone should hear. This is without a doubt a strong contender for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year.

Diamondwolf – Your Time Has Come

Overall, Your Time Has Come, is a fantastic album. Many times, it’s the Indie music artists who are the most talented in both writing and instrumentation, and Diamondwolf is no exception to that thought. In fact, they’re a great example of that thought. The deep metaphors and meaning found in the writing of these songs are a lost art in mainstream music. Alicia Dara and Glen Cooper sing these deep lyrics beautifully on every track. Even though you may have to listen to some of these songs a few times to fully grasp the meaning, it’s worth it. The reality and honesty grounded in each track only makes Your Time Has Come that much better. I highly recommend this album.

Other Highly Recommended Albums

Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter

Allison Moorer – Down To Believing 

Will Hoge – Small Town Dreams

Jon Pardi – The B-Sides, 2011-2014 EP 

Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – Django and Jimmie 

Jamie Lin Wilson – Holidays and Wedding Rings 

Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers 

Cody Jinks – Adobe Sessions

James McMurtry – Complicated Game

John Moreland – High On Tulsa Heat 

Reba – Love Somebody

Ryan Bingham – Fear and Saturday Night

Cody Canada and the Departed – HippieLovePunk 

The Western Swing Authority – Now Playing 

Judson Cole Band – Eastern Skies 

Striking Matches – Nothing But The Silence

Aaron Watson – The Underdog 

William Clark Green – Ringling Road

American Aquarium – Wolves 

Album Review – James McMurtry’s ‘Complicated Game’

If you mention the name James McMurtry to anyone in the Americana world, they’re likely to respond with nothing but high praise. “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics,” says Jason Isbell of the singer-songwriter. John Melloncamp has said, “James writes like he’s lived a lifetime.” And even author Stephen King has said, “The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” With that kind of praise, you can imagine that expectations are high with each album release from McMurtry. And with his newest album, Complicated Game, being his first release in six years, James McMurtry doesn’t disappoint.

Complicated Game is a songwriter’s album. The production in each song has slight variations, but a majority of the album is met with simple acoustic guitar notes and light drum beats. The driving force of the album is the lyrics and stories that McMurtry has penned. “Copper Canteen” is one of a few songs that speak to the hardworking, little man. Times are rough in the small town, money is tight, and life’s unavoidable circle of old ones dying and new ones being born add to the weight of mom and pop shops closing up because of the invading big box stores. But there’s still time to enjoy the small offerings of life, like getting in that last hunt before the season ends, or drinks with friends at the local pub.

“You Got to Me” is a love song about a wedding. McMurtry reminisces of the two of them when they first started out while providing vivid details of the wedding and party around them. The song documents the maturing process of growing from a single, reckless man to a married, more subdued husband, and McMurtry himself may not quite understand what it all means yet. “I Ain’t Got a Place” is about a traveller. A drifter roaming from town to town, be it a musician or just a nomad, unsatisfied with each place he stays. McMurtry does a great job painting a poignant picture on this track.

“She Loves Me” deals, again, with a travelling man. In one particular town, he has a woman who loves him. Their relationship isn’t monogamous, and they’ll both do as they please while he’s away. However, once he’s back in town, she makes him top priority for her affections. There’s a bit of arrogance in the way McMurtry sings this song, and it’s fitting. “How’m I Gonna Find You Know” is a rocking journey. This man is looking for a woman he’s infatuated with. She’s a badass bartender, and he’s down on his luck with a beat up old car and broken cell phone. This man is hot and ready and made preparations for a passionate night, but after running late, he can’t find, but continues to look. From the banjo to McMurtry rattling off-line after line of great, hilarious details of a night going from bad to worse, this song just rocks, certainly making it an album highlight.

“These Things I’ve Come to Know” is another semi-love song. McMurtry sings of the things he’s learned about the woman he loves. These things seem to be more and more impressive to McMurtry as the song progresses. In “Deaver’s Crossing” McMurtry tells the fictional story of a hitchhiking man who’s hard life got even harder as his farm land was taken to make room for a national park. The story was influenced by Shenandoah National Park’s inception over old farm land, one of which was actually owned by a family named Deaver. McMurtry simply tells a heartbreaking story filling in the blanks himself.

In “Carlisle’s Haul,” James McMurtry tells an epic story of a struggling fisherman. The fisherman and couple buddies illegally fish and try to catch enough to feed themselves and sell to the market for some much-needed cash, all while trying to avoid the law. The seven-minute saga is excellent, fantastic storytelling. “Forgotten Coast” is a simpler, more classic country tune. McMurtry simply moves down to an old coastal town, leaving behind his life and love to fish, sit on a front porch and enjoy an uncomplicated life in solitude. “South Dakota” may be the most heartbreaking song of the collection. A soldier returns to his small South Dakota home after being discharged. But the struggles of the farm life aren’t glamorous: cows are killed by a blizzard, their hides won’t sell much, and there’s no oil or gas to drill for to get some cash. The soldier entertains the idea of re-upping for the army because at home “you won’t get nothing here but broke and older.”

“Long Island Sound” is about a man who moves to the big city to start a new life. As the years have gone by, the hustle and bustle of the big apple and family responsibilities take over, leaving times of growing up in a simple, small town nothing but a distant memory. It’s a memory McMurtry reflects on with a beautiful Celtic-inspired production and an easy sing-along chorus. “Cutter” ends the album with another heartbreaking, sorrowful tune. It’s a biting song that doesn’t beat around the bush. There are demons, painful memories, loneliness haunting this man, and the red ridges from cuts on an arm are the only physical sign of his emotional pains.

James McMurtry can write one hell of a story. The attention to detail he puts in every song is excellent. Old heartbreak songs, love songs, the everyman struggles of making ends meet, all these topics are explored in fresh, innovating ways. There aren’t many songwriters in music like McMurtry. While the production may not necessarily change much between songs, McMurtry’s detailed words and phrases along with the slight rasp of his voice help each song earn a place on the album. Complicated Game is a great songwriting offer from James McMurtry.

Grade: 9/10