Audio Streams Up 15%, Vinyl Sales Double in First Half of 2021

As the pandemic ends, the recorded music business has continued to thrive: overall on-demand streams in the U.S. grew 10.8%, to 555.3 billion, in the first half of 2021 compared to the same period of 2020, according to MRC Data. Within that audio streams grew 15% to nearly 483 billion from nearly 420 million in the corresponding earlier period and globally audio streams performed even better jumping a whopping 27.3% to 1.296 trillion.

Not all the good news is digital. Vinyl sales, which have grown for the past decade, more than doubled between January and June, up 108.2% to 19.2 million from 9.2 million in the first six months of last year. Even CD sales, which have been steadily and precipitously declining, posted a modest 2.2% gain, to 18.9 million units.


The only serious loss was in digital sales: Album downloads fell 26.8%, to 12.92 million, while track sales dropped 20.3%, to 101.8 million. But physical sales rose so much that, for the first time in years, total album sales rose, by 12.6% to 51.26 million.

The top song of the year so far is Olivio Rodrigo’s “drivers license,” with 582.8 million streams, followed by Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” featuring Dababy, with 438 million streams. (By comparison, Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” had been streamed 1.07 billion times during the first half of last year.)

The top album is Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album, with 2.1 million album consumption units, outpacing the No. 2 title, Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR, at 1.37 million units. Wallen’s album is also outperforming last year’s mid-year No. 1, Lil Baby’s My Turn, which had nearly 1.5 million album consumption units by this time.

Taylor Swift’s evermore leads vinyl sales over the period, with 143,000 units sold, followed by Harry Style’s Fine Line, with 125,000 units sold.

Overall, U.S. album audio consumption units are up 14.4% to 413.3 million, while overall consumption units (including video streams) are up 13.5% to 434.65 million.

Universal Music Group improved upon its industry-leading market share, as measured by distribution ownership, to 38.55% from 38.16% in the same period of 2020. The total market share of independent distributors, as measured by label ownership, also rose, to 36.46% from 35.85%, according to Billboard estimates.

R&B/hip-hop remained the top genre, with a 28.25% market share, down slightly from 28.44% in the first half of 2020, while rock rose by 1.1 percentage points to a 20.36% market share. Latin also grew, to a 5.28% market share, from 4.36% last year; and country and dance each rose slightly — the former to 8.21% from 8.02%, the latter to 3.39% from 3.18%. The only major genre that dropped was pop, which declined slightly to 12.89% from 13.28%.

Looking at those genres another way, Latin had the largest percentage gain growing 37.6% to nearly 23 million album consumption units from 16.7 million units in the first half of 2020, while dance music increased 21% to 14.7 million units from 12.2 million units in the first half of 2020. Close behind in percentage gains, rock was up 20% to 88.5 million album consumption units from 73.8 million units in the corresponding year earlier period; and country increased 16.3% to 35.7 million units versus 30.7 million units.


R&B/Hip-Hop grew 12.8% to 122.8 million album consumption units in the first half of 2021 from 108.9 million units in the corresponding year earlier period. That means it didn’t keep pace with the U.S. industry’s overall gain of 13.5%. Likewise, pop music also fell behind inn the industry’s overall growth, only increasing 10.2% to 56 million album consumption units from 50.85 million units.

In other key measurements, both catalog sales (up 18% to 288.6 million album consumption units) and current album consumption units (up 5.6% to 146.07 million) grew, while as a percentage of overall consumption current (33.6%) continues to lose market share to catalog (66.4%). At this point last year, current music comprised 36.1%, to catalog’s 63.9%. That can be partially explained by the strong performance of “The Box” in the first half of 2020, which helped boost the top 10 songs of that year to 4.9 billion streams — compared to 3.93 billion for the top 10 in the first half of 2021; and 6.6% of overall streams among the top 200 songs in 2021, compared to 7% last year. Or, to put it another way, the top 200 most streamed songs in the first six months of this year totaled 32.76 billion, but that represents a 6.4% decline from the 34.99 billion streams the top 200 songs generated last year in the corresponding period.

All of the above gains take place against the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, however the increases in the first half of 2021 shouldn’t be discounted because, for the most part, the recorded music part of the music industry was unscathed by the pandemic. In fact, it appears to have bolstered streaming and physical music. In particular, vinyl’s increased popularity has been attributed to changing consumer habits during the pandemic. But the pandemic also appears to have played at least a cosmetic role in this year’s growth of the CD.

If you compare the first 10 weeks of this year, versus the first 10 weeks of last year — when record stores were still open, CD sales were down by a large margin — 26.9%. But after that point, the CD format rebounded posting a 30% increase to 12.2 million during 2021’s week 11 through week 26, against the corresponding period last year when most retail stores — including record stores — and CD sales totaled 9.4 million units, so that the format finished the quarter with 18.9 million in the first half of this year versus 18.6 million in the first half of 2020.

A version of this article will appear in the July 17, 2021, issue of Billboard.