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How Genres Are Running Music’s Growth

On-demand streams surged to more than 1 trillion in 2021, while CDs joined vinyl in the growth column.

Neither the delta nor the omicron COVID-19 variant slowed the U.S. recorded-music business last year as it continued the upward growth trend maintained even in the early days of the pandemic. For the third consecutive year, on-demand streams topped the 1 trillion mark — a feat accomplished almost solely by audio streams, according to MRC Data’s 2021 year-end report.

Combined on-demand streams grew 9.9% to 1.13 trillion, up from 1.03 trillion in 2020, and audio streams drove that overall growth by surging 12.6% to 988.1 billion plays from 877.2 billion in 2020.


Sony’s Swell, Latin’s Well

Although Sony Music Group finished second among the majors in market share, it was the only Big Three company to post an increase in 2021, from 25.74% in 2020 to 26.11%, as measured by label distribution, not ownership. (One-tenth of a percentage point represents approximately $7 million.) Universal Music Group remained at No. 1, but its market share fell marginally to 38.20% last year from 38.52% in 2020. Warner Music Group also declined slightly to 19.24%. The independent sector fell to 16.45%, but when looking at market share in terms of label ownership, indies collectively maintained their lead with 36.58%.

In terms of genre, Latin gained more than any other, growing its market share to 5.39% — up 9% from 4.95% of the market in 2020 — and rebounding to about the same share it held in 2019. Bad Bunny, whose catalog racked up 1.8 million consumption units, was the genre’s top seller, accounting for 3.73% of the genre’s 48.2 million total. The versatile Puerto Rican artist was Billboard‘s top Latin act of last year (a title he also held in 2019 and 2020) and the No. 24 streaming artist of 2021; worth noting because streaming accounts for 97.2% of Latin music’s consumption activity. Physical sales make up the rest.

Country music has also upped its streaming game through the success of Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs, who were, respectively, Billboard‘s No. 11 and No. 20 top streaming songs artists of 2021. Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album was the year’s No. 1 album, generating nearly 3.2 million album consumption units — nearly 90% of which were generated from streaming.

Although BTS did not place among the top 25 streaming songs artists of last year, its popularity is apparent in arguably the unlikeliest of formats: downloads. While the format continues to decline — track sales fell 13.2% to 202.9 million copies; album downloads dropped 23.9% to 26.2 million — BTS’ “Butter” sold nearly 1.9 million copies in 2021, 600,000 more than the 1.3 million units that the group’s “Dynamite” moved the year before when that track topped Billboard‘s year-end digital song chart.

How Genres Are Running Music's Growth

Catalog Cha-Ching!

Market share for catalog music consumption gained a remarkable five percentage points in 2021. Defined as anything older than 18 months that has fallen out of the top half of the Billboard 200 or is no longer current at radio, catalog music captured 69.8% of the market last year, earning 623.6 million consumption units — up from 65.1% and 522.6 million units in 2020. Current music accounted for 30.2%, or 269.5 million units, in 2021.

When CDs were the dominant format, those positions were switched. In 2004, for instance — well before streaming and before downloads became substantial — current albums comprised 64.2% of album sales while catalog’s share stood at 35.8%. Technological advances are a significant reason for that shift. Before the advent of streaming, the industry could track only what consumers bought in stores. Today, streaming more fully measures — and monetizes — their listening habits.

How Genres Are Running Music's Growth

Physical: Dance To The Record

Overall album consumption units grew 11.3% to 893.1 million from 2020’s total of 802.5 million units, fueled by streaming’s growth and an amazing year for vinyl (albeit on a smaller scale). In 2021, vinyl album sales grew 51.4% to 41.7 million copies, from 27.6 million in 2020, surpassing CDs as the top physical format. At an average list price of $27.49 per copy, according to calculations based on the RIAA’s midyear 2021 numbers, that means U.S. consumers purchased over $1 billion worth of vinyl releases, Billboard estimates, for the first time in three decades. Their top pick: Adele’s 30, which has sold 318,000 copies. The format has a way to go before it hits that milestone on a wholesale basis: 41.7 million copies translate to nearly $700 million in revenue for labels.

CD sales appear to have hit bottom in 2020 and rebounded slightly last year. After three consecutive years of decreases that exceeded 20% in 2021, 40.6 million copies of the format were scanned, posting modest growth of 1.1%. In 2020, that total was 40.2 million copies — a far cry from the 89 million logged in 2017, but some industry observers interpret the similar year-to-year numbers as a stabilizing moment for CDs.

How Genres Are Running Music's Growth

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2022, issue of Billboard.