For the Record is the new Billboard column from deputy editorial director Robert Levine analyzing news and trends in the music industry.
The remarkable thing about covering the music business is the way that any given industry trend often turns out to be great news for the company that employs the executive one happens to be talking to at the time. The sales boom in publishing catalogs, I’ve been told, is great for existing players (they have experience!), outsiders (with a fresh approach!), big companies (more resources!), but also small ones (more focus!).
So it goes with the boom in catalog music – defined by Billboard as albums released more than 18 months ago, as long as they’re not still in the top half of the Billboard 200 or being actively promoted by labels. In 2021, these “oldies” represented a whopping 69.8% of album consumption, according to Luminate, the company formerly known as MRC Data (which uses a slightly different definition of catalog than Billboard). That’s up from 65.1% in 2020 – and up from less than 40% in the mostly-pre-streaming times of 2014 – so it represents a fundamental shift in the music business that’s worth thinking about in a serious way.
Or not. Over the past few months, I’ve heard how great this is for the majors that control so much popular catalog (mostly from majors), as well as how much better it actually is for the new players that invest less in developing acts and instead focus on buying recording and publishing rights (mostly from them). All of the executives I spoke to said their companies had the unique foresight to predict this trend, and as a result were now perfectly positioned to reap the rewards of their brilliance. Lucky them!
As usual, the truth is more complicated, according to a Billboard analysis of what music is driving up the market share of catalog as well as a Billboard analysis of when that music came out. This is not your father’s catalog business – the biggest catalog acts last year were Drake, Juice WRLD and Taylor Swift. Drake not only generated more on-demand audio streams than The Beatles but more streams than all music recorded before 1980.
One reason so many people misunderstand the nature of the rise in catalog is because all the attention paid to big-ticket purchases of historic publishing and recording catalogs makes it seem like old music may be more popular than ever. By some measures, that may be true: Artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are benefitting from both a streaming boom, as well as a vinyl boom. But the classic rock icons of yesteryear are losing ground to the hits of yesterday – songs from the last two decades. In both 2016 and 2021, Springsteen had four among the top 5,000 on-demand streaming tracks, as measured by Luminate. None of them rank as high as “Springsteen,” the track by Eric Church, who had six catalog tracks among the top 5,000.
Drawing conclusions about the value of ’60s and ’70s music from the value of the Dylan and Springsteen catalogs is like seeing Bill Gates walk into a bar and saying that the average net worth of everyone in there is now over $100 million. Older catalog can be stagnant and worth more than ever, as long as streaming maintains its overall growth. And what a chart-watcher might see as stagnant an investor might see as stable. The idea of investing in music rights is that they generate a predictable return, year after year, at a time when the cost of capital is low and the search for returns has never been more competitive. But old music is hardly “killing new music,” as The Atlantic suggested this year.
We don’t even know whether listening habits are even changing! When consumers bought albums on CD, they presumably played them all the time for days or weeks, frequently for weeks or months, and then less often – perhaps until a new release by the same artist inspired more listens to his past albums. We don’t know, of course – we can only guess – because there was no way to measure. Now there is, but it’s hard to know how much music consumption has changed by comparing granular personal listening data to information about which discs were bought when.
It’s also important to point out that catalog isn’t a fixed category, like genre – what’s new today will be catalog tomorrow – so it’s hard to pick winners and losers. Just as Drake and Swift have catalog hits, Dylan and Springsteen make current music. (Also worth noting: Previously unreleased songs that come out on box sets count as new music) The idea of catalog is a useful way to think about the music business, but a friend used to point out that the 18-month divide was essentially a chart contrivance that became a category. Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 more than a year and a half after its release. Should that count as catalog or simply a slow-burn success? Does it really matter? Hits are hits, and everything eventually becomes catalog. In the long run, we are all legacy acts.
Does the catalog success of recent hits disproportionately benefit this year’s hot acts and labels, which will monetize their success for that much longer? Yes, because one way to amass popular catalog music is to release it new. (This seems less expensive than buying it, but that doesn’t count investment in artist development or account for the costs of acts that don’t have hits.) But it’s not even that simple. For the first six weeks of 2021, the highest-charting catalog song before 2000 was Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which was the No. 52 most popular on-demand song in 2021 – largely thanks to a boost it got from a TikTok video in fall 2020. In 2016, it was 1,086. No one could have predicted that – much less engineered it. It’s cool that a skateboarder who drinks Ocean Spray gave “Dreams” a massive boost – but also almost impossible to predict what song could benefit next.
Which won’t stop music executives from trying – or from taking credit.