New Music Streaming Drops During Lockdown - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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A sheltering world is searching for classics over new fare on streaming platforms.

Leading into 2020, the music industry had been experiencing one of its most successful stints in recent memory. According to the Recording Industry Association of America annual year-end report, the recorded music business in the United States — which has the largest media and entertainment industry in the world — generated just over $11 billion in revenue in 2019, the fourth straight year of double-digit growth for the sector. 

That’s largely due to the fact that streaming revenue was on the rise — up to $8.8 billion last year from $7.4 billion in 2018, and accounting for 80 percent of all industry revenue. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has thrown everything into chaos, one might reasonably expect recorded music to thrive. After all, nearly a third of the world is in lockdown, unable to attend concerts or movies and desperate for some escapism. Why wouldn’t they be glued to music? But according to Alpha Data, the analytics firm that most major music publications turn to for data:

Top platforms Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music and Amazon Music collectively saw nearly an 8 percent decline in streams the week starting March 13.

That drop — it’s the latest data available — amounted to a loss of nearly $17 billion. Spotify, specifically, saw U.S. streams of titles from its top 200 charts fall by 11 percent, and Pandora by 9 percent. Streaming in Italy of the 200 most popular songs actually dropped 23 percent on Spotify from early March to mid-March, after the nation went into lockdown.

These numbers suggest that music streaming isn’t quite working during the pandemic — neither with potential new recruits stuck at home during quarantine nor with regular streamers.

“The big takeaway is that it takes time to develop new habits,” says Aurélien Hérault, chief data and research officer at French streaming service Deezer. “When the lockdown first started in Italy, we saw a drop in streams. People were streaming less music but turning to news radio for updates.” 

The reasons are complex, and in part have to do with the new environments we find ourselves in. Many people listen to music at work, at the gym or while commuting. But we’re not following those routines these days, notes George Howard, music business professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “Those types of times where music has this very natural kind of place in your life is different than when you’re at home and you have different things competing for your attention,” he says. 

Being at home means more distractions than at the office — from children and TV to movies. Video streaming has become so popular during the pandemic that the European Union asked Netflix and YouTube in mid-March to stop showing content in HD — because their services might break the internet due to unprecedented usage. Similarly, Amazon-owned Twitch saw its viewership grow 31 percent, from 33 million to 43 million, between March 8 and March 22.

Then you have the music industry’s own apprehension. With the exception of Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake (March 6), Uzi’s Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2 (March 13) and The Weeknd’s After Hours (March 20) — albums that all charted on Spotify’s Global Top 200 — there were no major releases in the first half of March. In fact, with every major summer festival and concert canceled, artists — Willie Nelson, Sam Smith, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Haim and Kehlani among them — are pushing projects back.

“If you look at where the money comes from in the industry, it’s not the music, it’s touring,” says Jon Niermann, CEO of streaming company Loop Media. At the moment of their release, artists typically want exposure. “It takes away a lot of that grandiose time when you’re just doing an interview with Kimmel from your house. It doesn’t feel big enough to release an album,” Niermann adds.

To be sure, Spotify’s Top 200 chart only represents the most popular songs and doesn’t show all of the other tracks where the bulk of the streaming activity actually takes place.

But numbers from Alpha Data show that during mid-March, streaming of all new songs — those released within the past eight weeks — dropped just over 14 percent, so it isn’t just the chart-toppers that are suffering.

In that same time, however, modern hits such as “Perfect” and “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran (No. 162 and No. 136 respectively) and classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (No. 130) were all rising on Spotify’s global chart. The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” rose 135 percent — a powerful reminder of the need to maintain social distancing, perhaps?

Classical (up 1.5 percent), folk (bumped 3 percent) and children’s music (which saw the biggest increase of all, with 4 percent) increased as well. So, it’s not that people stopped listening to music; they’re just preferring familiar songs to new releases.

As we continue to shelter where we are, we’ll get to see which among music’s modern channels of expression will remain and grow. Whether through Twitch or Instagram Live, artists have not let social distancing stop them. We’ve seen free in-home concerts and DJs coining weekly sets — check out DJ D-Nice’s quarantine radio. The Verzuz competitive battle series between legendary hip-hop producers Swizz Beats and Timbaland got a staggering 400,000 views.

But the emergence of these mediums as the favorites for artists-in-lockdown and fans-in-quarantine means there’s even less appetite for fresh content on music streaming platforms. How Spotify, Pandora and their peers adapt might determine how they do the next time a crisis forces us to stay at home.

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