Every few months, there’s a new thinkpiece, report, or article about the growth of older music and the decline in newer music. Catalog songs—anything older than 18 months—now account for 72.4% of U.S. on-demand audio consumption according to a new report for Luminate. It’s a number that grows a few percentage points each year.
The record labels and publishers own both catalog music and new releases, so they bring in the revenue regardless. But still, no one entered this business to be a glorified estate manager. Labels can’t rest on the laurels of their back catalogs forever. The business is still designed to promote the next big thing.
Ironically, the back catalog growth shifts the music industry to the business model of a big tech company. It has a core business that brings in all the revenue and subsidizes any new moonshot ideas.
That model works fine for Google X. Everybody involved understands the long-odds stakes. But what about the newly-signed artist who just blew up on TikTok? Everyone, even the execs at the label, truly believes that she can become the next Billie Eilish. The odds were already slim, but now they’re even slimmer than imagined.
How will this shift expectations for both artists and the companies they partner with?
music relying on its own IP
Despite the wave of music catalog sales by artists from the 70s and 80s, the majority of back catalog listening is from the 21st century. In 2021, 79% of all U.S. streams are still from the past twelve years. There’s been a lot of talk about the impact of older hits making a comeback, like Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” But the more accurate narrative of catalog success is that “people haven’t stopped listening to Drake’s Views or Taylor Swift’s 1989.”
Drake, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Adele are the last generation of artists who rose up before the streaming era took off. They have an outsized impact when releasing new music, but even their latest releases can’t compete with their own success circa 2015. It was a different time.
This is why Swift’s re-recorded albums and Drake’s Care Package compilation of loose singles work well. It’s music that fans are already familiar with. They operate like sequels to popular movies. It’s also why artists popular artists rely heavily on samples, interpolations, and collaborations. Their name alone can’t guarantee high sales. Oftentimes, all the pieces need to come together just to have a chance to break through the noise.
the desire to pattern match
The streaming era’s shifts to moods over genres have also made it harder for new music to breathe. Here’s an excerpt from Evening Standard on the golden age of back catalog:
“Second up is mood and genre based playlisting, which works on roughly the same dynamic [the age of the song is irrelevant]. If you ask Alexa to play Sunday morning music, she’s not going to worry about being cutting edge, or directing streaming revenue to struggling new artists.”
Pattern matching was less important last decade. Think about breakout moments like the 2011 viral music videos for Azealia Banks’ “212” or Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers.” They weren’t following any formulas. Their creativity blossomed because digital music and media were less saturated back then. Greatness had a better chance to have its moment.
I’m sure there are emerging artists who have released equivalent greatness in the 2020s, but they are fighting upstream to compete with TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, my podcasts, and all the video streaming apps available through Roku. It’s a tougher game.
When artists get offers to join record labels, they are still pitched on the success of the artists who rose to power in a different time. Sure, it’s great that said label is home to Future, Young Thug, or Cardi B. But TikTok wasn’t a thing when they blew up. Spotify had a fraction of the subscribers it has today. Artists need more recent examples.
How many case studies can they share of post-TikTok artists who have a similar path? How has the likelihood of success changed over time? The people working at labels should be thinking similarly. Even if they execute a brilliant, expansive promotional campaign for artists, they shouldn’t compare results to legacy benchmarks.
The music industry has always been feast or famine. But that feast is getting a little harder to come by each year.