Four Takeaways From RIAA’s 2022 Year-End Report: Paid Subscription Growth, Ad-Supported Dip & Vinyl Vinyl Vinyl
Digging deep into the numbers of the annual report covering the U.S. recorded music business.
On Thursday (March 9), the RIAA released its annual year-end report on recorded music revenues in the U.S., with an encouraging top line: In 2022, total revenue was up 6% to $15.9 billion, with paid subscription and wholesale revenues each surpassing $10 billion for the first time. That marks the seventh straight year of growth for an industry that at this point is far removed from the doldrums of the early part of the century.
In fact, the industry could credibly be a little underwhelmed by the rate of growth, as the 6% figure is the lowest percent increase across those seven years — and the only time other than pandemic-affected 2020 (+9.2%) that growth has fallen below double digits during that period. In actual figures, it’s the smallest increase ($900 million) year over year since 2016, when the business grew 11.4% and added $700 million.
There are plenty of other interesting takeaways to discern from digging through the RIAA’s report. Here are four (plus one bonus item!) that stand out.
Paid Subscriptions — Anything to Worry About?
Both the average number of paid subscribers (those subscribing to full-catalog services like Apple Music or Spotify’s paid tier) and the revenue from full-catalog paid subscriptions grew at much slower rates, both in percentage terms and in actual numbers, than in recent years. The former metric showed an increase of 8 million subscribers (9.5%; 84 million in 2021 to 92 million in 2022), while the latter metric reflected an increase of $600 million (7.2%; $8.56 billion to $9.17 billion). As with the overall growth rate for the industry, that’s the first time in several years that those figures grew by less than double-digit percentages. So, is it anything to worry about, when looking at how much growth there is left in the paid streaming business?
Not necessarily. For one thing, between 2018 and 2022, paid subscribers (up 96.2%) and revenue from full-catalog subscriptions (up 93.6%) have grown fairly in line with each other, and the revenue per subscriber has averaged $98.92 over that period of time (pandemic-affected 2020 was an outlier year, at $92.35). In 2022, the average revenue per subscriber was $99.77, which was down from $101.94 in 2021 but not out of line with the overall average.
That number should be expected to grow, given price increases by Apple Music, Amazon Music and Deezer in the past year and the increasing pressure on Spotify to boost its price higher than $9.99/month, where it has stayed since entering the U.S. in 2011. This will be something to keep an eye on as the year progresses, as strategies shift from gaining subscribers to getting more out of those who do subscribe, given that a ceiling on the number of subscribers could be coming into view (for context, the U.S. government counted 124 million households in the latest census).
Another reason for optimism: The above numbers don’t include limited-tier subscription revenue — things like Amazon Prime and fitness apps like Peloton — which crossed the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2022. Since 2020, when the pandemic led to a home fitness app craze and resulted in additional areas of limited music subscription beyond the traditional paid streaming realm, limited-tier subscription revenue has grown 47.7%. As more licensing opportunities arise, that sector should continue to contribute meaningful revenue moving forward.
Ad-Supported Streaming Takes a Hit
Ad-supported on-demand streaming revenue reached $1.8 billion in 2022, accounting for 11% of the overall revenues for the business last year. But growth was just 5.5% over 2021 — a big reality check after the category grew 46.7% in 2021 over pandemic-affected 2020 and 16.4% at the mid-year mark of 2022. Even in 2020, when the world essentially came to a standstill for several months, year-end ad-supported streaming revenues grew 16.8%, up $170 million — higher than the $95 million gain seen in 2022.
The advertising slump last year was certainly a blow to U.S. industries, with layoffs across the music and tech landscapes in particular. Many companies cited “economic headwinds” due to a combination of factors, including the war in Ukraine, rising interest rates, inflation and the threat of recession as companies scaled back spending that had ballooned coming out of the pandemic and readjusted forecasts for an uncertain future. All of that certainly played a part. But since 2018, ad-supported on-demand streaming revenue grew 137%, becoming an increasingly large part of the overall pie. In comparison, 5.5% is likely a disappointing number to many in the industry.
Vinyl, Vinyl, Vinyl
Another year, another big headline involving vinyl’s 16-year winning streak: For the first time since 1987, the number of vinyl LPs sold in the United States (41 million) surpassed the number of CDs sold in the calendar year (33 million). Vinyl sales reached $1.2 billion in 2022, up 17.2%, while CD sales plummeted once again, decreasing 17.6% to $482 million. Despite the eye-popping vinyl revenue numbers, however, actual unit sales only rose 3%, meaning that the price of vinyl is getting more expensive. In 2021, the average vinyl record cost $26.12; in 2022, that number rose to $29.65. There’s plenty to unpack there, including increased production costs and inflation.
Another notable development in the vinyl craze that has sharpened in recent years is the shifting market share among vinyl retailers. As far back as 2015, when the industry started to emerge from its nadir, the market was dominated by indie records stores (45.42%), internet/mail order sellers like Amazon (32.88%) and chain stores like Best Buy (15%), according to Luminate. By 2018, indie stores and Amazon sales had essentially settled into a market share tie — each at 41% — while the Best Buys of the world had shrunk to just north of 10%.
But beginning in 2019, a fourth player began to emerge: Mass merchant stores like Walmart and Target, which dramatically expanded their inventories. As a result, their market share went from less than 1% in 2015 — accounting for some 7,000 sales — to 10.19% in 2019 and 14.75% in 2021, with sales of 6.1 million units. While the market share economics have shifted during that time, sales have continued to increase for each sector across the board. In short, part of what has been driving the boom has been sheer visibility in some of the biggest stores in the country, which has correlated to more sales, and thus more visibility, and around and around we’ve gone. (For those curious, in 2022 indie stores accounted for 48.1% of the market, having reclaimed their dominant position as the country emerged from the pandemic.)
The Synch Explosion
In the past few years, more and more songs have caught huge waves due to synchs in popular TV shows and films. Think Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” following its Stranger Things placement, The Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck” following its Wednesday placement and Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down The Line” from Euphoria, to name a few. That seems to have stemmed from the explosion of content, as the streaming wars in TV/film world heated up during that time — with Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Peacock, Paramount+, Apple TV+ and the rest all throwing money around to reel in subscribers. The RIAA numbers back that up: In 2022, synch revenue grew 24.8%, from $306.5 million to $382.5 million, marking a gigantic jump. In fact, from 2020 to 2022, synch revenue jumped 44.2%, outpacing the industry at large (which was up 30.3% in that span).
Will that upward trend continue? It’s unclear. The TV/film streamers have publicly cut back their content spends in the past six months as the battle for market share and subscribers veered into profligacy and waste, while corporations looked to reel in costs amid the broader economic landscape. But it’s possible those gains are here to stay, even if they regress a bit. One music group executive recently told Billboard that in addition to the big four streamers (Spotify, Apple, Amazon and YouTube), Netflix was quickly becoming a fifth major source of revenue thanks to a combination of direct synch payments and the long tail of streams that result from a high-profile placement. That’s something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Bonus Takeaway — Ringtones!
Finally, a small bonus addition from a personal favorite aspect of the RIAA report. The mid-to-late-2000s were, of course, a time of great uncertainty and anxiety in the recorded music business, as piracy and digital music chipped away at a once-dominant physical sales format. At their height in 2007, ringtones and ringbacks were able to plug the gap to the tune of $1.1 billion, according to the RIAA. (That would be around $1.6 billion today.) So, how much money did ringtones and ringbacks generate in 2022?
Please, RIAA, continue printing this as a line in every report, no matter how small the figure gets. While it’s currently the smallest line item by revenue in the entire report, I cherish it more than all the others.