At the beginning of the year, Luminate (formerly MRC Data) issued its 2021 annual report, which showed that catalog music — which Billboard defines as a track that is older than 18 months — increased its share of overall U.S. music consumption from 65.1% in 2020 to 69.8% last year, as measured by album consumption units. The initial interpretation of that data was that, more than a year into the pandemic, listeners were soothing themselves with nostalgia — relaxing with Fleetwood Mac, rather than blasting Doja Cat.
The market share of catalog has actually been rising since 2014, back when sales still dominated the industry, when it accounted for just 35.8% of the business. Since then, the popularity of catalog has climbed steadily, until its big jump last year – when consumption in the category increased 19.3% and consumption of current music declined by 3.7% at a time when streaming continues to grow. That shift seems to be holding: During the first six weeks of 2022, the top 100 had 22 catalog tracks, up from seven in 2020, and the average age of the 100 most streamed songs was 20 months old, compared with just eight months in 2020, according to a Billboard analysis of Luminate data.
Most of this shift has been driven by on-demand audio streaming, where catalog accounted for 70.2% of consumption in the U.S. in 2021. But it has been boosted by TikTok, where songs of any age can go viral and get a transformative boost: In the first six weeks of 2022, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” came in at No. 83 among on-demand streamed songs in the U.S., according to Luminate – well over a year after its skateboard-driven spotlight.
Just as strikingly, the music that once dominated the catalog category, which at one point was virtually defined by classic rock, now sounds a lot younger and more like new music than it ever did. A Billboard analysis of 2021 U.S. on-demand streaming data provided by Luminate revealed that tracks released over the last 12 years account for almost 79% of U.S. on-demand audio streaming. And Drake may stream more than all of the recordings released before 1980 combined.
Since this latest rise in catalog came around the same time that legacy artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen sold their recording and publishing rights for record-setting sums, it’s easy for those outside the industry to assume this kind of material is driving those gains. That’s not true, however.
“It’s a headline-grabber, but it’s not accurate” to assume that older recordings dominate the catalog category, says Kevin Gore, president of global catalog for Warner Recorded Music. “It’s better seen when you dig into it.”
A Billboard analysis of the top 10,000 on-demand audio streaming tracks in the U.S. for the first six weeks of 2022 – a time in which those tracks accounted for 47.9% of total streams – shows which acts rule catalog now. The three top artists, as measured by on-demand audio streams of catalog music, are Drake, Juice WRLD and Taylor Swift. Drake has 82 catalog tracks in the top 10,000; Swift has 81 and Juice WRLD has 59. (All three also have current tracks.) By comparison, The Beatles have 28 and Fleetwood Mac has 15.
Some executives now refer to this kind of music – released within the past few years, mostly by artists who are still active – as “shallow catalog,” to distinguish it from older “deep catalog.” (Billboard and Luminate do not formally distinguish between the two.) And it appears that it’s driving most of the growth in catalog – to the point where it’s changing the financial dynamics of the industry.
The legacy artists that used to dominate the catalog chart haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, many iconic catalog songs have risen in popularity substantially: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” ranked No. 329 in 2016 and No. 91 in 2021, while The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” the band’s highest-ranked song, went from No. 917 to No. 400. Many catalog mainstays have the same number of recordings among the top 10,000 on-demand streaming tracks as they did two years ago, including Michael Jackson (17), Metallica (13), The Notorious B.I.G. (11), and AC/DC (10) — and the number of tracks from other big acts didn’t change much. But the growth is going to newer acts. The Beatles have 28 tracks among the top 10,000, which generated 121.6 million streams in the first six weeks of 2022 – more than any other legacy act. But XXXtentacion had 30 tracks that generated 205 million streams. “Roll Over Beethoven,” indeed.
“The second you say ‘catalog,’ the assumption is it’s all icons and heritage artists,’ says Gore. “But there’s some really amazing and valuable content that’s becoming catalog just because of its age. You’re seeing Dua Lipa and Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars — high-performing tracks and albums.”
The line between current and catalog, always artificial, may be starting to blur as big hits remain popular longer – perhaps because playlists implicitly encourage consumers to listen to songs longer. At this point, 42 of the top 200 audio on-demand tracks have been among the top 200 for more than a year – and 18 have been there for more than two. Among those with lasting power: Post Malone, J. Cole, Chris Stapleton, Ed Sheeran and Imagine Dragons.
In the first six weeks of 2022, the second-biggest catalog track was The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears,” which ranked No. 26 in on-demand streaming nearly two years after its release and a year after it saw the biggest gains among the top 100 streaming tracks after the artist’s Super Bowl halftime show performance. The first was Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves,” originally released in June 2020 – on its way to No. 1 on the Hot 100 on March 22.