Everyone Is Doomed (Except Adele): The Cold, Hard Truth About The Nielsen Music Report
Last week, Nielsen shared its 2015 U.S. Music Year-End Report, giving a massive statistical overview of how we consume music, how much music we consume, and how our consumption of music in 2015 differed from our consumption of music in 2014. The report was covered by just about every major publication in the world, and all those publications told a similar story about the report. Below, I have created a composite version of that story, using lines from a dozen different articles via a dozen different news organizations, cited Wikipedia style. I think it flows pretty well!
“Contrary to popular belief among curmudgeons, the music industry as we know it isn’t totally down the toilet — at least not yet — and the numbers prove it.”  “2015 was a good year for streaming services, according to Nielsen’s year-end Music report out now.”  “Because of streaming’s ascent, the record business experienced an overall growth of 15.2 percent, from 476.9 million album consumption units in 2014 to to 549.4 million in 2015.”  “[S]treaming activity nearly doubled in 2015. On-demand audio and video streams on outlets like Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music — which, unlike radio services, allow users to pick exactly what songs to listen to — were up 93 percent, to 317.2 billion songs played.” 
“The story of the year in the music industry should have been music streaming … But then along came Adele.”  “In the music business in 2015, there was Adele and then there was everybody else.”  “Adele’s 25 sold 8.01 million equivalent album units — a combination of traditional album sales and streaming equivalent albums — last year following its launch on Nov. 20. That number includes 7.44 million in traditional albums, a whopping number for the music industry.” 
“25 was also the top seller in vinyl sales, a format which continues its renaissance. Vinyl sales were up 30 percent from 2014 and accounted for almost 9 percent of total physical album sales.”  “Nearly 12 million vinyl units sold this year, making 2015 the 10th straight year of growth.” 
“[The report] contained bad news, too. Both album and individual track sales declined again.”  “Digital track sales suffered the biggest drop (12.5 percent) but physical album sales (8.3 percent), and digital album sales (2.9 percent), also continued their descent.”  “However, the sheer volume of streams appears to at least partly make up for the shortfall — Billboard notes that the revenue is equivalent to 211.5 million purchased albums. While artists aren’t necessarily getting all that extra money, it’s a positive sign.” 
So anyway, if you saw this story anywhere, it probably looked a lot like that. And that doesn’t look too bad!
But looks can be deceiving. And when I look at this report? I see an entirely different story than the one being told by everyone else. So I’m here to tell you my version.
Sound good? Trust me, it’s not. Of course I recognize that neither the report itself nor all the coverage of the report suggests that every aspect of the industry is in perfect health, but there’s no need to debunk the negative stuff — the decline in album and track sales — so let’s focus on the positive.
Says Nielsen: “2015 was the year of Adele.” It would seem so! The 29-page report dedicates three full pages to Adele. And yes, 25 was clearly music’s biggest success story of 2015, but “the year of Adele”? That album came out the week before Thanksgiving — six weeks before the end of the year. I’d be willing to bet there are hundreds of thousands of copies of 25 that were given/received as Christmas gifts and are still in the shrink wrap — not because all our mother-in-laws didn’t want the thing, but because Christmas was less than three weeks ago. (That said, my own mother-in-law has apparently been spinning her copy of the CD on permanent repeat since Christmas Day, for what it’s worth.) If the music industry in 2015 was defined by 25, then it was a bad year for the music industry. And it was! Look at this:
How do you feel about baseball metaphors? Wonderful! Here’s one of my favorite olde-tymey baseball stories. In 1920 — this was before the era of the longball — Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs: more home runs than any other team in the American League that year. That was what Adele did in 2015: In six weeks, she sold more 25 CDs (5,018,000) than the next eight best-selling albums of the entire 52-week year combined (4,873,000).
When people say things like, “In the music business in 2015, there was Adele and then there was everybody else,” they’ve got it sorta half-right. It would be more accurate to say, “In the music business in 2015, there was Adele and then there was NOBODY else.” When people say things like, “Adele’s 2015 domination has been confirmed,” they’re making it sound like a zero-sum game and Adele just crushed all the competition. But it’s not a game at all! It’s a vast, dynamic industry and a means of livelihood for thousands and thousands of actual people. It’s an ecosystem that supports (or tries to support) life at all levels. But this is how the Nielsen report was covered by some of the English-speaking world’s more reputable media outlets (and the New York Post):
Here’s the difference between Babe Ruth and Adele. Babe Ruth was credited with saving baseball after the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Babe Ruth ruled over the sport like none before or since, but in doing so, he generated excitement (and revenue) for baseball after an incident that might have killed it altogether. 25’s success is not the equivalent of Babe Ruth going yard on every pitcher in the league in 1920; 25’s success is the equivalent of every game at Yankee Stadium being sold out, and every other stadium in the country being empty regardless of who’s playing.
I don’t blame Adele for any of this, mind you — I think she’s fantastic, and I’m very happy for her success — but one could argue that by withholding 25 from streaming services, Adele has minimized any possible trickle-down or ripple effect by which her astounding notoriety and remarkably high profile might bring attention to other artists. If 25 were on Spotify, for example, and someone subscribed to Spotify to listen to 25, they might also listen to other music on Spotify. They might discover new artists, or re-discover old favorites. But 25 exists in a vacuum: cut off, walled off, isolated.
That said, Babe Ruth didn’t hit dingers to rescue baseball from its own festering toxicity; he did it because chicks dig the longball. And Adele ain’t tryna be Captain Save-An-Industry either. Furthermore, it would be wildly unreasonable and almost certainly hypocritical to fault Adele for sealing her album in that vacuum, when you consider the economics of streaming. But we’ll get to that. I’m building to that! First, let’s talk about this:
Ignore the top two items on that chart; remember, we’re focusing on the positives here. Vinyl: up 29.8 percent over 2014. As noted in the Nielsen report’s “Highlights And Analysis” section: “Vinyl LPs continued to set new all-time highs with nearly 12 million units sold in 2015. This marks the 10th straight year of growth for vinyl LPs and surpasses last year’s previous record volume by 2.8 million units.”
Remarkable, no? The same millennials who are wasting their prime years playing Neko Atsume are also buying vinyl records! What a time to be alive. And why not vinyl? It sounds warmer! It has resale value! You can separate seeds and stems on those big cardboard sleeves! It’s hard to argue with 10 years of consecutive growth, and it’s really hard to argue with a 30-percent increase over last year’s figures.
So I won’t argue. I would, though, encourage you to think long and hard before making any substantial investment in a new vinyl pressing plant, even though there is apparently “a global rush” for such things.
Last July, Stereogum published an extensive feature titled “Have We Reached Peak Vinyl?” which asked the following question: Have we reached peak vinyl?
Well here we are, six months later, and it would appear the question we posed has been answered for us. You can’t argue with 30 percent! Come on, is it even a question anymore? Have we reached peak vinyl?
Yeah, we probably have.
It’s true that vinyl sales have grown steadily over the last decade, but for the purposes of this conversation, we’re only going to look at the last four years: the figures between 2006 and 2011 are too small to be instructive. Numbers! I even made my own chart. (Admittedly it doesn’t look as nice as the ones from the Nielsen report, but no one said this was gonna be pretty. Also the data I found is slightly different than the data reported by Nielsen, but the difference is negligible: 29.35-percent growth instead of 29.8. It doesn’t affect the diagnosis one bit.) All right, let’s do this:
See, it’s not about total sales, but year-over-year percentage changes — and 2015 was the first year since 2011 that the percentage increase was lower than the previous year. And not just a little bit lower: 22 percent lower. If you’d invested in that vinyl pressing plant in 2006, when only 858,000 vinyl LPs were sold in the US, you would have seen a 1287-percent growth on your investment at the end of 2015, when 11.9 million vinyl LPs were sold in the US. (Why didn’t you invest when you had the chance?! Gahhh.) If you’d invested in 2011, when 3.9 million vinyl LPs were sold in the US, you would have seen a 205-percent growth on your investment at the end of 2015. (You sat around watching five years of consistent growth and still didn’t invest?? Shame on you!) But if you were to invest today … well, let’s assume the downward side of the arc is consistent with upward side: You’d maybe see 18-percent growth on your investment by the end of 2016, and it would probably flatten out entirely by the end of 2017, maybe fluctuating by a few percentage points every year, and steadily dropping as new technologies were introduced and oldsters who grew up on the vinyl format started retiring/dying. (No sense being delicate about it; we’re all gonna go someday.)
But if you were a gambler, I’d advise you to put your money on the decline happening at a considerably steeper rate than the incline. Why? Well, first off, the 30-percent increase we saw in 2015 belies a decline that occurred over the course of the year. During the first three months of 2015 — Q1, as they call it in the biz — vinyl sales were up 56 percent over the same period in 2014. During the first six months of 2015 — Q1 and Q2 — vinyl sales were up 38 percent over the same period in 2014. So it is straight-up bad to close the year at 30-percent growth, because that indicates that vinyl sales dropped precipitously over the course of 2015 after an incredible Q1.
Wanna know what makes it worse? The best-selling vinyl LP of 2015 was released in Q4! One week before Thanksgiving, six weeks before the end of the year, to be exact.
Wanna know what makes it MUCH worse? Look at the other best-selling vinyl LPs of 2015:
WHAT THE HEAVENLY MOTHER OF FUCK IS THAT?
It is … not great that only three of 2015’s top 10 best-selling vinyl LPs came out in 2015, especially when one of those is a historical outlier. It is also not great that 2015’s second, third, fourth, and fifth best-selling vinyl LPs — which came out in 2014, 1979, 1969, and 1959, respectively — are also historical outliers. Let’s give a pass to 1989, which is still relatively new: Dark Side Of The Moon is the third best-selling album of all time; Kind Of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time; Abbey Road is the single best-selling album in the Beatles’ catalog, and the Beatles are the best-selling band of all time. These albums will never stop selling; they are the backbone of the industry. But they shouldn’t be the face of an industry segment’s resurgence!
But then we get to the back half of that list, which, like … I can’t … I just … look, I love Carrie & Lowell, and I think it absolutely belongs in the top 10 ALBUMS of 2015, but if that was the seventh best-selling vinyl LP in the entire country for the entire year? And if the sixth best-selling vinyl LP in the entire country for the entire year was the Arctic Monkeys’ AM, which came out in 2013? And if the 10th best-selling vinyl LP in the entire country for the entire year was the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack, which was, y’know, a pretty silly soundtrack for a pretty silly movie that came out in July 2014, and which featured a dozen songs culled exclusively from the ’60s and ’70s, the newest of which was Rupert Holmes’ 1979 hit “Escape”? (“If you like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain…”)
All I’m saying is: That is not a sustainable model. It’s unlikely but not impossible that 2016 will be the first year in more than a decade in which vinyl sales increase by single-digit percentage points. It’s almost a guarantee that 2016 will bring a deluge of stories with headlines like: “Is The Vinyl Resurgence Over?” Or, “Has The Music Industry’s Vinyl Bubble Finally Burst?” Or, “There’s No Denying It: We Have Reached Peak Vinyl.”
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the vinyl market will crater or disappear entirely overnight, and I don’t disagree with the assertion that vinyl continues to be “a bright spot for the industry,” although I might change the wording there. Instead of “spot,” how about “speck”? Because that’s what it is, really. Vinyl only accounts for something like 9 percent of all physical music sales. It’s just a tiny little thing!
Let’s get to the Big Bad.
Before I get to the contents of that chart, I’d like to point out that the layout of that chart is extremely confusing. I mean, I found it extremely confusing anyway. What’s the difference between “streams” and “audio”? I stared at the thing for 10 minutes before figuring out what Nielsen was trying to convey. I’ll do my best to clarify it for you, so you don’t lose the same 10 minutes. (This assumes you’re as easily confused as I am.) I made another chart! Same exact data, just presented a little bit more intuitively (I hope).
*As far as I can tell, Nielsen’s math is wrong or they made a typo, because 172.4 + 144.9 = 317.3, not 317.2, which is partly why it took so long for me to make sense of Nielsen’s chart. Not a big deal either way, I guess; it’s only a hundred million streams, right? (Also worth noting, in case you were curious: Pandora isn’t included here at all, because it’s an internet-radio service — not an on-demand streaming service — even though Pandora has something like 80 million active users per month.)
ANYWAY I hope that clears it up for ya. So let’s dig in! See those figures right there? THAT, my friend, is percentage increase. Oh, baby! And bear in mind, those numbers are in billions. In 2015, Americans streamed 317 billion songs via on-demand services: a 93-percent increase on the 164 billion songs we streamed via on-demand services in 2014. And that 164 billion figure represented a 54-percent increase over 2013! That is a ridiculous growth rate. Do you know how many industries would kill for 93-percent year-over-year growth? All of them.
But … well, before we pop the cork on this Cristal, let’s break down that data a little bit, shall we?
Let’s start by focusing on these numbers:
So, as you can see there, on-demand audio streams — that is, songs streamed via services like Spotify — were up 83.1 percent in 2015 over 2014. That’s huge growth! BUT — and this is crucial — it’s totally incommensurate with the growth of streaming services between 2014 and 2015. As you might have heard, streaming music was kind of a big deal in 2015. (I wrote a story about it!)
And streaming services did indeed grow in a big way last year. In June 2015, Spotify reported having more than 20 million paid subscribers and more than 75 million active users — nearly double their numbers just one year earlier (they had 10 million paid subscribers and 40 million active users as of the end of May 2014). But that figure is actually misleadingly low, because it doesn’t account for the months after June, during which time Spotify apparently grew at an even greater rate; the company recently announced that “the last half of 2015 was our fastest in terms of subscriber growth.” Digital Music News reports that as of this past Monday — less than two weeks into January 2016 — Spotify has more than 100 million total users, which would represent a 150-percent increase over their 2014 figures.
And yet, on-demand audio streams were up by … 83.1 percent? In truth, that would be a disappointing figure even if Spotify had only grown by half as much — if nothing else, people should be phasing out old technologies and getting more comfortable with the new one, to say nothing of the fact that the visibility of streaming services increased exponentially over the course of 2015, thanks to the media attention given to the biggest company in the world (Apple) launching its own on-demand streaming service in 2015, and 18 of the biggest stars in the world (Jay Z, Beyoncé, Jack White, Kanye West, Madonna, Rihanna, Coldplay, etc.) launching their own on-demand streaming service (Tidal) in 2015.
There are additional complicating factors I’m not accounting for, but as far as I can tell, 83.1-percent growth here indicates that people who subscribe to on-demand music-steaming services actually listened to less music, on average, in 2015 than they did in 2014; people who subscribe to on-demand music streaming services devoted less time to music in 2015 than they did in 2014.
Or maybe there’s another answer. Maybe they listened to just as much music. Heck, maybe they listened to more music than ever before. Maybe they listened to, like, almost twice as much music as they did last year. But they just didn’t listen to as much music via those on-demand streaming services.
But where? Where did they turn? Where could they have gone?
Oh wait a sec.
They’re all right here.
Okay, now that? That you have to admire. TRIPLE-DIGIT percentage increase over last year? Forget about all this other stuff, that’s real money.
Well, nobody actually knows. YouTube doesn’t disclose the royalty rates paid out to labels and publishers for song streams on the service, but I’ve heard varying reports. Jay Z rapped about it last year, in a freestyle verse he delivered at a Tidal live event, in which he detailed his reasons for starting his own streaming service. Maybe you know the line, but in case you missed it, it goes like this:
I don’t take no checks, I take my respect
Pharrell even told me go with the safest bet
Jimmy Iovine offered a safety net
Google dangled around a crazy check
I feel like YouTube was the biggest culprit
Them niggas pay you a tenth of what you’re supposed to get
Needless to say, there are countless musicians voicing concerns or staging protests against Spotify, but only Jay has really called out YouTube by name. In fairness, I’ve never heard anybody else quote that particular figure — that YouTube pays one-tenth of a standard royalty — but again, nobody really knows. What I have heard, though, is that YouTube pays somewhere between 66 and 73 percent less than Spotify per stream. So, you know, it’s probably not really one-tenth? It’s probably closer to, like, a third? A quarter? Somewhere in that range. That’s compared to Spotify, mind you. So guesstimate that, like, those 172.4 billion video streams generated about as much revenue for artists as would 51.3 billion Spotify streams?
It may not be that high, though. This 2014 Sonicbids story — titled “Music Royalties 101,” and intended as a tutorial for artists — tells musicians that: (A) YouTube song-streams generate royalties only “if your video has an advertisement attached to it,” and (B) “You can go to YouTube directly to get these royalties, but there is a massively long waiting list, and most applications go unanswered.” (Keep fighting the good fight, David Lowery! One day maybe you can tell your grandkids you were responsible for slaying the Spotify giant and clearing the way for YouTube’s total ownership of the market!)
Let’s get back to the big picture, though. I’m gonna bullet-point this real quick, just saying again what the Nielsen chart stated above:
• In 2014, people streamed 85.4 billion songs via on-demand video services
• In 2015, people streamed 172.4 billion songs via on-demand video services
• Therefore, song-streaming via on-demand video services grew 101.9 percent in 2015 over 2014.
See, here’s the weird thing about that: Video services did not grow 101.9 percent in 2015. In fact, they did not grow at all, as far as I can recall. You’ve got YouTube and Vevo … that’s it. Right? Do you remember a whole bunch of stories about fancy new on-demand video services in 2015? I don’t. I remember a lot of stories about Tidal and Apple Music and Spotify. But video? (In fact, YouTube launched its own music app in November 2015, and even that arrived without a great deal of fanfare.)
Here’s the weirder thing about that: In 2014, on-demand video song-streaming outpaced on-demand audio song-streaming by 8 percent. But in 2015, that number jumped to 19 percent. The gap is widening.
Why though? How is that happening?
Here’s one reason: YouTube has more than a billion users — totally dwarfing the comparatively paltry numbers of Spotify and Apple Music. As Larry Miller, professor of music business at New York University, told Wired: “YouTube is already the world’s largest on-demand streaming service by far. In other words, put every other service in the world in a bathtub, and you won’t begin to fill the bottom with respect to the size of YouTube’s on-demand streaming service.”
Here’s another reason:
Those charts come from a section of the Nielsen report titled “Most Important Factors In Choosing A Streaming Service,” and apparently that data comes from a survey of “over 500,000 music consumers in 2015.” That’s on page 27 of the report, by the way. Page 28 is the “About Nielsen” section, and page 29 is the back cover. Anyway, since it’s all the way at the bottom of their report, I figured I’d put it all the way at the bottom of my story, too. I know, I know — I said I was only gonna focus on the positive stuff, and it seems pretty hard to put a positive spin on this data, but it also seemed sorta … relevant?
Incidentally, I wonder about the semantic distinction made by people when checking the box next to “They are too expensive” instead of “I can stream music for free.” When given the option of “free,” what exactly would be considered “not too expensive”? A penny? Would you join if it cost a penny? Because don’t think they won’t give you that deal! They’ve done it before! (“Oh no, no, please — that’s not necessary, really. Honestly, I won’t use it enough!”)
Seems fairly cut-and-dried, no? People don’t want to pay for music, and people are also sort of ambivalent about on-demand audio streaming services, but they’re very comfortable with YouTube. Coincidentally, YouTube also (allegedly) pays out royalties at the very, very bottom of the scale: a fraction of the rate paid by Spotify, which is itself a fraction of the rate paid by sales of physical product, which was itself so unhealthy for artists that it inspired this classic quote from the late Hunter S. Thompson:
The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.
He’s right, you know: There is a negative side. But we’re not here to talk about the negative side today. Today, we’re just taking a bunch of statistics and making them into a story, and you know how much that’s worth, right? As Mark Twain once (maybe) said, “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” Or, as Benjamin Disraeli once (possibly) said, “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Or, as Homer Simpson once (verifiably) said, “People can come up with statistics to prove anything.”
I’ve got nothing to prove, though, and I’d be very happy to be proven wrong. And if you want to use the statistics in the Nielsen report to prove that the music industry is essentially healthy — citing the numbers put up by Adele, vinyl, and streaming as evidence of that health — they’re all pliable enough; you can do that. But man, between you and me? It’s a damn lie.
Corrected on 1/13/2016: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that Nielsen tracked the streaming figures for both Apple Music and Tidal in 2015. The story was also updated to reflect the most recent Spotify user data.