While young people have historically defined popular music, now it appears streaming is driving down ages at a new level for both artists and consumers. As streaming has led the music industry’s growth since 2016, the average age of Billboard 200-topping solo artists has incrementally declined. Meanwhile, online audio streaming in America has doubled since 2012 from one-third of the population to two-thirds, according to Edison Research’s 2019 Infinite Dial study. Among that population, 25% of streamers aged 25–34 spend at least four hours a week streaming music, according to music industry analysis hub MusicWatch’s weekly average for fourth quarter 2018. Of those aged 18 to 24, that figure is 17%.
“The charts are a reflection of the changing composition of who is streaming,” says Russ Crupnick, managing partner of MusicWatch. “The heavier the streamer, the younger it gets.”
Those users appear to be choosing, en masse, younger artists. David Bakula, senior vp global product leadership and industry insights at Nielsen, says this may be because listeners tend to identify with the messaging of artists their own age.
“Look at how influential Billie Eilish has been -- my 10-year-old daughter loves that album,” he says. “She’s not going to identify with someone who’s older. I don’t think she loves anybody older than Taylor Swift.”
And as Interscope executive vp Joie Manda points out, Juice WRLD’s breakthrough album, 2018’s Goodbye & Good Riddance, centered on a teenage breakup.
"It’s teenage love, and he’s talking to other teenagers about it,” Manda says. “You always want to hear somebody that’s like you, and like-minded, and has the same point of view.”
Technology has also lowered the barrier to entry for young artists to reach listeners in the first place. “Kids don’t have to wait to finish school to go into the studio, or say, ‘This is my profession,’” Manda explains. “Ten years ago, artists would have to get a label to believe in them to get studio time.” Both Eilish and Juice WRLD started making records from their bedrooms in high school. And they went “viral” -- a phrase that didn’t exist before the advent of social media and streaming -- after posting songs on Soundcloud, where more than half of users are Gen-Z or millennials, with the majority of all users aged between 16 and 24. “There’s a population of young artists in the thousands who are breaking through,” says Soundcloud global head of artist relations and label services Lisa Ellis.
Joining that lineage is 20-year-old Lil Nas X, whose TikTok meme-turned-hit “Old Town Road” recently broke the all-time record for weeks atop the Hot 100. Back in 2016, Billboard found that over six decades of Hot 100 history, the average age of a lead solo artist at No. 1 was 28.5. Last year, it was 26.5. And out of the five solo artists and two duos who have managed to top the Hot 100 this year, the average age is just 23.
There’s one plot twist: The average age atop the Billboard 200 was even younger in 1998 and 1999 than it is now, at 25 and 26 years old, respectively. The sudden drop-off coincided with a new wave of pop stars: In 1999, Spears and Christina Aguilera both released their debuts as teenagers. Ellis thinks the comparison reveals something cyclical about the pop music industry. “You are now truly in the next generation,” she explains. “Someone who was 16 in 2000 is now approaching 40, and their kid is listening to Khalid.” The major difference is that today’s teen idols are taking off on their own, outside the industry machine.
Bakula predicts the average age will moderate somewhat by the year’s end, as Christmas albums trickle onto the Billboard 200 and legacy artists come out of the woodwork. “I don’t see Billie Eilish doing a Christmas record in the near future,” he jokes. “Maybe the anti-Christmas record.” But the low average so far could prove tough to offset, making 2019 a defining year for young musicians.
“It could be Barry Manilow the rest of the year,” Bakula adds, “and [the average would] still be pretty young.”