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US Recorded Music Revenue Hit $15B in 2021, Topping Record — With a Catch: RIAA

In 2021, revenues were up 23% overall over the $12.1 billion clocked in 2020.

Recorded-music revenues in the United States reached $15 billion at retail in 2021, according to the RIAA’s annual year-end report.

That towering figure, in a vacuum, exceeds the record-high water mark of 1999, when revenues reached $14.6 billion at the height of the CD boom, though the optimism comes with a major caveat — inflation over the past 20-plus years has grown to the point that the $15 billion actually represents a figure 37% lower than the high-water mark, which would be around $24 billion in today’s dollars.

Still, the figures are another welcome sign for a business that had bottomed out less than a decade ago. In 2021, revenues were up 23% overall over the $12.1 billion clocked in 2020, as streaming revenues alone surpassed that 2020 mark, having climbed 24% in the past year to account for $12.4 billion in 2021, or 83% of all recorded music revenues. That’s being driven by a 23% growth in paid subscription streaming revenue, which now accounts for $9.5 billion of that figure, or 76% of streaming revenues (including $907 million from limited-tier subscriptions, up 26% itself).

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For the year, the average number of paid subscribers in the U.S. reached 84 million, up 11% from last year’s 75.5 million and 60.4 million in 2019. Meanwhile, ad-supported on-demand streaming revenue rebounded to 47% growth in 2021, reaching $1.8 billion, and SoundExchange and other digital radio distributions totaled $1.2 billion, with the SoundExchange piece up 5% year over year from $993 million in 2020.

On the sales side, digital downloads continued to decline, down 12% to $587 million in 2021 — of that figure, digital album sales accounted for $282 million (down 12%) and digital track sales sunk to $256 million (down 16%). In total, digital sales was just 4% of total revenues for the year, according to the RIAA’s figures.

On the other hand, physical sales were up across the board — the first time since 1996 that both CD sales revenue and vinyl album sales revenue grew in the same year. Overall, physical sales reached $1.66 billion, a 42.3% increase over 2020’s $1.16 billion, with big numbers on each side.

Vinyl, which has been growing for 15 solid years now, reached the $1 billion revenue threshold for the first time since 1986, according to the RIAA, up 61% year over year and accounting for just over $1 billion in revenues and a whopping 7% of overall recorded music revenues, as well as 63% of physical revenues. CDs, meanwhile, saw the first year over year jump since the digital revolution started to sink CD sales in 2004, growing 21% to $584 million, just shy of the total digital download revenue.

“The incredible run of strong, industry-wide growth documented in this and prior reports speaks to the dynamic and vibrant creative and commercial relationships today’s labels have built with their artist partners,” RIAA chairman/CEO Mitch Glazier said in a statement accompanying the report. “Labels haven’t simply reinvented themselves, they have helped transform the entire process of music creation, discovery and distribution to bolster creative freedom and artistic expression while seamlessly meeting fans everywhere and anywhere they want to be. The result has been an incredibly vibrant period delivering new opportunities, platforms and experiences — from music-powered fitness apps to gaming platform livestream concerts to must-have vinyl exclusives to global surprise digital album drops… No industry in history has embraced changing technologies and innovations faster than music over the last 10 years — taking streaming from novelty to ubiquitous in the blink of an eye and now working to drive a new generation of social apps, shared immersive experiences and blockchain/NFT opportunities going forward.”

This story will be updated.