The 10 Biggest Music Business Stories & Trends of 2022: TikTok, Taylor, Web3 & More
As the year winds down, a look back at the biggest moves, deals, ebbs and flows in another year of record-breaking success and fast-moving change.
As 2022 comes to a close, the music business can look back on another hectic year: turnover at the top levels of several big companies; record-breaking successes in several sectors of the industry; and some major headlines coming from sometimes unexpected places, all of which captured the attention of the music business over the past nearly 12 months. Here are 10 big stories and trends that helped define the year in the industry.
The Executive Turntable
The end of the year is always time for turnover, and the final stretch of 2022 has seen more of that than usual. The biggest story of all, however, is a change atop the Warner Music Group, with Stephen Cooper exiting after a successful 11-year run that saw the major double its revenue and boost its market share while taking the company public once again. He’ll be replaced by YouTube’s Robert Kyncl in February, in a move that has been widely seen as a nod toward the tech-based present and future of the music biz, particularly at WMG. Though changes atop the major groups are relatively rare, that was far from the only transition this year: Def Jam, Island and Capitol all welcomed new chairmen/CEOs, with Tunji Balogun, the duo of Justin Eshak and Imran Majid and Michelle Jubelirer taking over the trio of UMG companies, respectively. John Esposito also is transitioning into a new chairman emeritus role at Warner Music Nashville, handing the day-to-day reins to his longtime heirs apparent Ben Kline and Cris Lacy, who will take over in January. Warner also integrated 300 Entertainment into the 300 Elektra Entertainment Group, with Kevin Liles in charge, then placed it under the umbrella of the newly-formed Atlantic Music Group, with Julie Greenwald at the helm. And just recently, Motown chairman/CEO Ethiopia Habtemariam surprised many in the industry by announcing her intention to step down, at a time when the label is in its best shape in years, with a successor yet to be named. The C-Suites have been spinning much more than usual this year.
The Ticketmaster-Taylor Swift Meltdown
Cross Taylor Swift, and her fans, at your peril. The biggest artist in the world, whose latest album Midnights easily cleared the biggest streaming week globally of 2022, had set a presale for her first tour in five years, with tickets slated to become available on Nov. 15 through Ticketmaster. But the company badly, and somewhat inexplicably, misjudged the level of demand that existed for Swift’s tour. Long wait times, astronomical prices and service outages tanked the pre-sale, with billions of bots, according to the company, flooding the site and resulting in 3.5 billion requests to access it — four times the previous high water mark. That resulted in millions of frustrated, ticket-less fans. Which would have been bad enough, if it didn’t spark a firestorm that has yet to abate and is showing no signs of doing so. (As Billboard’s Glenn Peoples wrote, “Ticketmaster is one of the few non-partisan issues in America in 2022.”) There is now a Justice Department investigation into whether Live Nation has abused its market share in the live business (which was said to pre-date the Taylor tour, though it came to light in the wake of the problem) and a Senate antitrust panel hearing on the docket, as well as several state-level probes, and a lawsuit from more than two dozen fans accusing the company of fraud and “anticompetitive conduct.” It’s unclear if changes are on the horizon, but it has proven a headache of massive proportions.
Top-Level Touring Success
The headlines have never been rosier: Live Nation and Ticketmaster reported record-breaking quarters. Bad Bunny’s World’s Hottest Tour became the first ever to average a $10 million gross per show. Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour closed in on the record for highest-grossing tour of all time. In short, it was a great year to be in the live music business — if you’re one of the biggest artists or promoters in the world. For a lot of others, the outlook was much less rosy: a “nightmare” of supply chain issues, COVID-related cancellations and postponements, rising costs and routing difficulties all combined to make it much more difficult for a lot of artists to get back out on the road this year. It is, and will continue to be, a process to get back to normal.
Synchs On Fire
A well-placed synch has always been a big revenue driver, particularly for legacy acts, but this past year the combination of prestige television and the TikTok algorithm combined to super-charge some of the biggest synchs to not just big bucks, but new chart highs, too. This past year, the biggest story on this front was Kate Bush’s 1985 track “Running Up That Hill,” which received a high-profile synch in Stranger Things and simply took off, surging into the top five of the Hot 100, becoming the oldest song to reach No. 1 on the Streaming Songs chart and returning to the top 10 of the Alternative Airplay chart after a record 28-year absence, while doubling its label revenue in the first two weeks after the series aired. And that wasn’t even the only Stranger Things-related synch to blow up: Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” ballooned 400% in streams in the days after its synch in the season finale. Songs featured in Euphoria, The Batman and Thor exploded in value, while the RIAA’s midyear report saw synch revenue growing faster than ever. Most recently, The Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck,” with a placement in Netflix’s Wednesday, saw its revenue grow more than 8,000% in a single week.
Ebbs and Flows of Catalog Market
The red-hot catalog market has been the talk of the business for almost half a decade at this point, but over the past year things started to change in some unexpected ways due to rising interest rates, the dwindling number of truly elite catalogs available and the faltering of some of the sector’s most prominent players. And still there were big wins, including Sting’s deal with UMPG that Billboard estimated could be worth well north of $300 million, Stephen Stills’ sale of a controlling interest in over 1,000 songs to Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group and UMG’s purchase of Frank Zappa’s catalog in the region of $30 million. Meanwhile, Brookfield dropped $2 billion into Primary Wave, which promptly acquired the catalogs of Joey Ramone ($10 million) and Huey Lewis & the News ($20 million). Concord swung a package deal for the Genesis catalog as well as those of its individual members for somewhere around $350 million, and new players like Litmus Music came into the market with $500 million to spread around (some of which just went towards Keith Urban’s master recordings). So despite a “challenging environment” and an end to the catalog “feeding frenzy,” there’s still a lot of juice left in those old songs (and a big Pink Floyd-sized catalog potentially in the offing).
The Rush Toward Services
While one sector of the business is running with arms wide open toward catalog ownership, another sector is running just as firmly in the opposite direction: toward services, or partnering with artists and labels to provide a backbone of support to help them achieve their goals without giving up ownership through distribution, marketing, publicity, promotions, royalty claiming and other services. The independent distribution space has generally been a viable business model for decades, but the rush into services ramped up in the past year. Companies like SoundCloud, TikTok, Tencent and Downtown embraced the shift with realigned business models, joining relatively new entrants to the space like UnitedMasters, Stem and Utopia. Many of the major labels (Interscope, Republic, 300) also launched their own distro subsidiaries in an attempt to grow their market share in an increasingly indie world. For some, however, the shift was less of a slam dunk than they may have envisioned, with a tough business model that relies on scale colliding with the increasingly-murky corners of the digital music industry –resulting in fraud, financial challenges and lukewarm responses from the market.
The Onset of Crypto Winter
Early in the year, Web3 projects exploded in what seemed like every sector of the music business, including all three major labels along with companies like Spotify, Coachella, Ticketmaster, Gibson, the Grammys and Death Row Records — not to mention artists like Snoop Dogg, Steve Aoki, Pharrell and Keith Richards. Universal launched an NFT band, Warner partnered with a slew of web3 companies, Snoop promised to buy Death Row and make it into an NFT record label; the possibilities seemed endless. But the seas proved to be much choppier than many had expected, and a series of selloffs and financial failures (as well as recession and inflation fears) brought in what many called the Crypto Winter, with sales and enthusiasm beginning to ebb as the year went on. By the time the second-biggest crypto exchange, FTX, spectacularly failed in November, there had been a 70%-80% cool-off in the market, to the point where the once-ubiquitous format seemed ready for another hibernation while the industry tries to figure out how best to take advantage of the new-ish technology. Expect the ebbs and flows to continue until we’re all in an acronym haze.
BTS Break Rattles Biz — And HYBE Stock
By just about any metric, BTS has been one of the biggest and most formidable acts of any genre in the past several years, racking up No. 1 hits, big-name collaborations, massive box office grosses and accounting for nearly one-third of the entire K-pop market in the U.S. since 2021, according to Luminate. So the group’s decision to take some time off for solo projects was a blow to the group’s management company, label and agency HYBE, which saw its stock, already down 45% for the year at that point, sink 27% in the week after the announcement. (Shares recovered a bit after closing at 145,000 won following the announcement, hitting a low of 107,000 on Oct. 13 and rebounding to 157,000 as of Dec. 12.) With the group members facing the prospect of mandatory service in the South Korean military, HYBE is facing an uncertain outlook for 2023, despite third-quarter growth and the possibility of positive returns from BTS members’ solo projects. For K-pop fans, however, there is room for other companies to step in: JYP Entertainment has had chart success with TWICE and Stray Kids multiple times this year, SM Entertainment’s BLACKPINK scored a No. 1 album in October and Big Hit Entertainment has generated success with Tomorrow X Together. While there’s plenty of opportunity in the K-pop market, the road ahead is uncertain for HYBE, a company that not too long again was a slam dunk.
Despite Complications, the Business is Thriving
It’s been a complicated year for the business overall, as the return from COVID has been trickier than expected, breaking new artists has become harder than ever and overarching financial issues like inflation and the possibility of a recession have cooled what had been a white-hot market. But despite those challenges, the music business has been growing on almost all fronts for another year. The touring business has already been covered here, but the U.S. recorded music business also saw on-demand audio streams surpass 1 trillion for the first time ever — representing a 611% increase from 2015, according to Luminate. Despite supply chain issues that continue to bedevil labels and manufacturers, vinyl sales passed $1 billion in revenue for the first time since the mid-1980s. At the midyear mark, they were up more than 22% — well before Taylor Swift’s Midnights set the record for largest vinyl sales week since Luminate began tracking data in 1991. Overall consumption is up another 9.2% year over year so far in 2022, with no signs of slowing down and with record companies increasing their guidance for investors in 2023. Amid cutbacks and hiring freezes in tech and media, the music business stil appears to be on strong footing.
It’s Still a TikTok World
Love it, hate it, rue its influence or spend hours scrolling it, the industry was as obsessed with TikTok in 2022 as it’s ever been, and the ByteDance-owned social streaming behemoth has leaned further than ever into its connections to the music biz — for better or worse, depending on whom you ask. The service has been behind the massive success of hits both old (Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill,” Frank Ocean’s “Lost”) and new (Lizzo’s “About Damn Time,” Bebe Rexha and David Guetta’s “I’m Good”) while helping break new artists like Em Beihold and Cafuné. But the labels’ love affair with TikTok has, over the past year, cooled down, as breaking a hit has become more complicated and the marketing pluses that it offered have fizzled. A distribution play from the platform called SoundOn was met with a lukewarm response, while a ByteDance streaming service, Resso, has rolled out in select markets, with rumors that it could come to the U.S. soon — if TikTok can ease the concerns of U.S. officials. And that comes as the frustration over low payouts and song leaks have some executives warning of a repeat of the early days of MTV and YouTube, when music content was regularly used to promote a fledgling service without commensurate compensation. Still, the biggest song on the platform in 2022 — a nine-year-old track from Swedish sad boy Yung Lean — grew its stream count by over 1,000%, and TikTok is still the single biggest proving ground for singles in the current digital climate. What to make of TikTok in 2022? How about…everything?