The most popular oldies are getting younger.
Since at least 2014, the market share of catalog has been rising – from just over 65.1% in 2020 to 69.8% of album consumption units last year, according to Luminate (formerly known as MRC Data). At the same time, though, the music that dominates the catalog category – defined by Billboard as albums released more than 18 months ago, as long as they’re not being actively promoted by labels or in the top half of the Billboard 200 – is more recent than ever.
In a trend apparently driven by streaming, growth is now being driven mostly by older albums from newer artists – sometimes referred to as “shallow catalog” – rather than the “deep catalog” of the ’60s and ’70s rock acts that used to dominate the category. To get a sense of how profound this shift has been, consider that music released in this century accounted for about 90% of 2021 U.S. on-demand audio streaming, according to Luminate – and that Drake generated more streams than all tracks released before 1980.
To better understand how the catalog business is changing, Billboard analyzed a decade-by-decade breakdown of the 988.154 billion U.S. on-demand audio streams from 2021 provided by Luminate. It shows that tracks released in 2020 and 2021 generated 389.69 billion on-demand audio streams, or about 39.44% of the total. Another 388.37 billion streams, or 39.30%, came from the previous decade, Jan. 1, 2010 through Dec. 31, 2019, which means that tracks released over the last 12 years account for a whopping 778.06 billion plays, or 78.74% of all on-demand audio streams last year.
There’s one important caveat: The Luminate system has some incorrect release dates, especially for older albums, often because of reissues, although there are fewer inaccuracies when it comes to individual songs. Perhaps as a result, catalog accounts for a slightly different amount of music when measured by audio on-demand streams – 70.2%, as opposed to 69.8% for album consumption units. Luminate also distinguishes between catalog and current tracks more precisely than it does for albums: Songs become catalog after 18 months, regardless of how they perform on Billboard charts.
The third biggest chunk of market share comes from tracks released from Jan. 1, 2000 through Dec. 31, 2009, which generated 109.88 billion, or 11.12%, of 2021 U.S. on-demand audio streams. That means that music released during this century accounted for 887.94 billion of 988.154 billion total streams – nearly 90%. (89.86% to be exact.) Some of that music was presumably released by older artists, but this shows just how much catalog has become a young artist’s game. (That percentage is up from 2018, the last time Luminate, in its earlier incarnation, broke out streams by decade, when songs released since 2000 accounted for 88% of streaming.)
That means that tracks originally released in the 20th century collectively accounted for a total of 100.21 billion streams, or 10.14% of U.S. music streaming measured by Luminate. In 2018, by comparison, 20th-century recordings generated nearly 12% — which makes sense since there’s now three more years’ worth of 21st-century music to listen to.
Of the music originally released during the 20th century, more recent music also dominates. Music released in the 1990s generated 60 billion streams in 2021, which translates to 6.07% of streams; music released during the 1980s accounted for 33.84 billion streams, or 3.42%. Music released before then doesn’t even account for a single-digit percentage point: Music from the 1970s scored 3.51 billion streams, or 0.36% of the total; music from the 1960s had 2.64 billion streams, or 0.27%; and 1950s material generated just 212.85 million streams, or 0.02%. (The market share of music released before that is too small to count.) All told, music released before 1980 accounted for 0.6% of 2021 U.S. on-demand streaming – while Drake himself generated 7.91 billion streams, or 0.8%.
Although the trend is indisputable, it can be difficult to precisely measure the number of streams of tracks that came out in a given decade, because the Luminate database has the occasional incorrect release date – especially for older recordings. The release dates of some songs that Luminate identifies as coming out in the 1960s and 1970s are off by a few years, for example – and, in rare cases, by a few decades. Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” released in 1967, for example, is identified as coming out in 1988, the year it first made the Billboard charts. Many more song release dates are accurate, however – many down to the day. Luminate constantly works to correct inaccurate dates with input from the industry.