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U.S. Recording Industry Sees Slight Uptick in Revenue Last Year, Streaming Dominates Digital

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has released its 2015 full-year numbers, which arrive bearing both good and bad news.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has released its 2015 full-year numbers, which arrive bearing both good and bad news. 

The good: The U.S. recorded music business brought in more money last year than the year prior — by a slim margin — reporting revenues of $7.016 billion, up from from $6.951 billion, an increase of 0.09 percent.

The bad: While streaming explodes, the RIAA’s numbers, when measured against Nielsen Music unit counts, point to the the per-stream rate dropping, as overall streaming revenue is on the rise. Billboard estimates, when the RIAA’s dollar numbers for interactive paid and ad-supported streams are plotted against Nielsen Music’s streaming counts for 2015  — of 317.2 billion streams — and for 2014 — of 164.5 billion streams — the blended interactive per-stream rate for audio and video drops 24 percent, to $0.00506 in 2015, from $0.00666 in 2014. (Note that this blended rate is a rough estimate; services all pay differently, and the RIAA’s numbers are extrapolated to reflect the per-stream rate at retail, while the ad-supported streams are not. The retail rate doesn’t reflect what is paid to labels, and thus artists.)

The RIAA notes that, for the first time, streaming revenue accounted for 34.3 percent of the industry’s revenue last year. Compare that to download sales, which made up 34 percent of revenues, physical with 28.8 percent, and synch at 2.9 percent, and the primacy of streaming starts to become clear. That per-stream rates are dropping as consumption volume increases isn’t a surprise, but it is a thorny underside to the recording industry’s most promising market. 


Paid subscription revenue increased 52.3 percent, to $1.22 billion, compared to $800.1 million in 2014. Ad-supported streaming revenue increased 30.6 percent to $385.1 million.

Overall digital revenue, including downloads and streams, increased 6.2 percent to $4.8 billion, from $4.51 billion in 2014, accounting for a combined 70 percent of overall sales, up from 67 percent in 2014.

Digital sales revenue, with streaming revenues removed, fell 10.4 percent, to $2.32 billion. Within that, unit counts for albums fell to 109.4 million from 117.6 million, a 7 percent decline; while track downloads fell to 1.02 billion from 1.2 billion, a 14.9 percent decline

SoundExchange distributions for programmed streams totaled $802.6 million, up 3.8 percent.

Moving over to physical formats, the total retail value of CDs, vinyl and DVDs of albums and singles fell 10.1 percent, to $1.9 billion. CD albums, the generator for the lion’s share of physical revenue, fell to $1.521 billion, from $1.83 billion in 2014. Unit counts fell to roughly 123 million, from about 143 million. Vinyl continued its inexorable revitalization, generating $423 million from 16.9 million album sales and half a million singles, an increase of 31.8 percent.


Finally, the RIAA noted that synchronization royalties paid to labels jumped 7 percent, to nearly $203 million.

It’s important to note labels typically sell CDs at wholesale (65 percent of retail), while downloads typically sell at 70 percent of retail (think Apple’s infamous 30 percent cut from iTunes Store sales). Streams usually pay, depending on the model, between 45 and 60 percent. Again, the RIAA’s numbers reflect retail sales — meaning that the above numbers don’t reflect how much music labels received for their music.