How we used data to design modern record certification plaques

Bo Plantinga
Sep 21, 2020 · 6 min read

Record labels regularly present their artists with recording certification plaques to celebrate milestones in the journey of a song or an album. This practice first started when Regal Zonophone Records awarded George Formby a silver disc after the song “The Window Cleaner” sold 100,000 copies. Four years later, RCA Victor presented Glenn Miller and his orchestra the first gold disc to celebrate the sale of 1.2 million copies of the single, “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”

Fast forward to 2020 and we have more information than ever. Digital streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and many others provide unique and granular consumption data that can help us identify things like an artist’s audience and how fans are reacting to newly released music. Although this data is valuable to artists, managers and labels for strategic decision-making, it also makes for compelling, beautiful and interesting data storytelling.

Lil Nas X with his UK certification for “Old Town Road” (source: Twitter @LilNasX)

Record labels often adorn their walls with certification plaques — celebrating the milestones and achievements of their top-selling artists, bands and albums. One day while we were waiting for a meeting to start, we began contemplating the fact that these plaques haven’t really changed since the 1940’s. Sure, some have amazing and innovative designs, but at their core they all include 1) some metadata of the song 2) a disc (most often) and 3) some top-level stats on the performance of the song, such as sales or streams.

our initial sketch of the three main elements of a certification

We immediately wondered how we could personalize these plaques so they were unique to the story of each individual song. With this in mind, we starting brainstorming on how we could solve the following puzzle:

Using the data at our disposal, could we create a unique digital fingerprint of a song and visualize it in a way that fans would find it compelling enough to display on their walls?

Why bother coming up with a new concept of a certification? The current certifications are fine as they are, right? Sure, we agree, they are great and will always play an important role in an artist’s successful journey.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t be better, more dynamic and modern. Aside from that, we just want to make data fun! :-)

Visualizing the data

We reached out to Nadieh Bremer, an extremely talented data visualization artist who has completed projects for the New York Times, Greenpeace and Google (amongst others). We were very pleased to have her on board to help us bring this new conceptual version of a certification to life. For all who want to get technical, Nadieh has written us a blog post on her entire design process that you can find in this blog’s footer.

We needed to find data associated with each particular song that was both informative and that had the potential to be visually appealing. We also wanted to use public data, so it could be accessible to fans.

We ended up using the following data points in our design:

With this data, Nadieh started exploring different angles on how she could visualize the data. The project evolved from amplitude waveforms and heat-maps to spectrograms, in various shapes and sizes. You can check out the below images that show just a small fraction of her journey from sketches to the main elements of the final design.

Nadieh’s journey — from sketches to the final design

We immediately loved how the spectrograms gave us that desired unique digital fingerprint, while also closely resembling the quintessential record we’re used to seeing on plaques. You can clearly see this when looking at the below images of Doja Cat’s “Say So” and Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love.”

The digital fingerprint of ‘Say So’ and ‘Savage Love’

These circular spectrograms serve as the core of the data visualization. Each dot within the radial graph represents a frequency bin and the color indicates the intensity of the amplitude. Lower pitches are found on the exterior whereas high pitches are found on the inside. The black outer ring represents the beats per minute.

The hashed lines indicate new sections of a song, like the chorus or verse. All these data points are plotted on a radial timeline which represents the length of the song.

Nadieh then visualized the Spotify charting around the inner digital fingerprint, where each line represents a country and the height indicates the rank on the chart. The thickness and color indicates the amount of streams on that particular day, in that market.

Playlist additions are shown on the ring between the inner spectrogram and the charting. Each circle represents a new Spotify playlist addition. The size indicates the number of followers on that particular playlist and the color the amount of days the track has been featured on that playlist.

The end result

Although it was not easy to blend all these data points, we were so happy with Nadieh’s work and the final result. We hope you are too:

Harry Styles — Adore You (final design)

We ended up with an initial selection of six poster designs (all with an unique digital fingerprint) that you can download as high resolution PDF file below. Feel free to print them out and hang on your wall like we did!

initial selection of posters

Closing remarks:

  • Want to know what data sources we’ve used and how Nadieh made this visualization possible? Check out this other blog post on our publication that covers an in-depth explanation on the data gathering and visualization:
  • Follow our publication closely for our next drop of poster designs

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed reading this article, leave some claps and follow us for more stories where we connect data with music.

Special thanks to the amazing Nadieh Bremer for realizing this design!

Sony Music Data and Insights | Benelux

Sharing some of the connections we made between music and data